All posts by Shane Wilson

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PHASE IV (1974)

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DIRECTED BY: Saul Bass

FEATURING: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick

PLOT: Following a mysterious cosmic event, ants in a remote corner of Arizona are acting strangely, and a pair of scientists are out to determine if the insects’ behavior has implications for the future of humanity.

Still from Phase IV (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Given the parts and tools needed to make a monster movie, a master of Hollywood imagery chooses instead to make a kind of video essay envisioning humans and ants becoming one in a sort of neurological singularity. Surprise of surprises, no one really got it, but it lingers in the memory as an example of genre filmmaking providing a platform for genuinely idiosyncratic visions. The film, like its director, is one of a kind.

COMMENTS: Saul Bass is the strangest kind of movie legend. While everyone else was trying to earn fame as an actor or an auteur, or the more adventurous hoped to become a household name as a writer or a composer, Bass carved out a lasting legacy as a master of marketing and design. His graphic skills are still revered as some of the finest and most memorable film posters and title sequences (the latter in partnership with his wife, Elaine) ever devised for the medium. He built a second career for himself as the creator of some uncommonly memorable corporate logos, and his distinctive style even earned him his own Google Doodle. His skill at capturing a movie’s mood soon carried over into the filmic storytelling itself: what could have been a simple end credit sequence to Around the World in Eighty Days became a six-minute animated epic retelling of the tale audiences had just sat through; some accounts (including that of Bass himself) give him credit for crafting Psycho’s iconic shower sequence; and his own dabblings in short filmmaking earned him three Oscar nominations, claiming the short documentary prize for “Why Man Creates.”

All this is to say, when you sit down to watch the sole feature film that Bass ever helmed, you should know not to expect anything traditional or commonplace. Yet audiences and executives alike seem to have been completely unprepared for the kind of movie that Bass intended to make. The subject matter suggests a B-movie with cheap thrills, a la Empire of the Ants or Kingdom of the Spiders. To think that Saul Bass would get control of a film and make something  uninspired is to fail to read the man at all.

For one thing, it’s probably the most delicately paced nature-on-a-rampage movie ever made. Like a metaphysical take on The Andromeda Strain, the film pits methodical scientists against a mysterious phenomenon they are just beginning to understand, and we see their step-by-step process as they test out pesticides and make halting first steps at communication. It feels real, if not suspenseful; the closest thing we have to a ticking clock is the ever-present threat of the government withdrawing a funding. It’s a thriller for tenured university professors.

Bass and screenwriter Mayo Simon are far less interested in the human side of the tale. With the scientists played by the classically arrogant Davenport and the determinedly milquetoast Murphy, and Frederick’s ingenue mainly present to facilitate the ending and to provide the geography for an entertainingly creepy ant’s-eye tour, there’s not much to latch onto. It’s not as though you’re rooting for them to die, but you’re definitely not invested in whether or not the scientists live. Especially when you’ve got the convincingly creepy world of the ants to reckon with. From their 2001-style monolithic creations on the Arizona plains (Arizona being played, oddly enough, by Kenya) to their elaborate funeral ceremonies, the bugs are where it’s at. The close-up photography of Ken Middleham (who cut his teeth capturing similar up-close insect footage for The Hellstrom Chronicle) is absorbing and brings character and nuance to the ant populace, in a way that no present-day CGI take on the material could ever manage.

Adding Phase IV to our list might have been a no-brainer, had the producers not chosen to cut a four-minute chunk out of the movie’s finale. The released cut leaves you with an enticing uncertainty, as the surviving humans are left to contemplate their unknown future. But that’s nothing compared to the original vision (recently rediscovered and offered on a French Blu-Ray release and as an iTunes extra), in which the transcendental implications of the coming conjunction of life on Earth are explored and the true meaning of the film’s title is revealed. With Dalí-esque landscapes, an unsettling soundscape created by Stomu Yamashta, and a cacophonous mix of solarization, overlaid imagery, and off-kilter angles, it almost manages to capture the unseeable vision of a biosphere transformed. In some respects, it’s the greatest Saul Bass opening sequence ever: a prelude to the evolution of the human race.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Think of it as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of treacherous ant movies… it’s a gorgeous and strange film to look at, accentuated by Brian Gascoigne’s sparse and eerie electronic score.” – Jim Knipfel, Den of Geek

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

CAPSULE: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER (1965)

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AKA Mars Invades Puerto Rico, Duel of the Space MonstersFrankenstein Meets the Space Men, Operation San Juan

DIRECTED BY: Robert Gaffney

FEATURING: Marilyn Hanold, James Karen, Lou Cutell, Nancy Marshall, Robert Reilly

PLOT: An invading alien force plans to kidnap Earth’s women to repopulate their species; to preserve the secrecy of their plan, they shoot down a series of American rockets, but the last is crewed by a cyborg who turns into a brainless killing machine upon crash landing in Puerto Rico.

Still from Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)

COMMENTS: Sometimes a movie is just silly. There’s no other level, no hidden agenda, no subversive reading that allows you to view the movie from a completely different perspective. No, sometimes the movie is just goofy as hell, and everyone knows it, and no one tries to be ironic or campy; they just keep doing what they’re doing, and you get a movie that’s silly.

If the highly misleading title didn’t tip you off, we get a proper taste of the kind of movie Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is going to be early on. Opening with a car taking a group of military bigwigs to the Kennedy Space Center, the movie launches into an extended montage of the vehicle slowly motoring past every conceivable landmark on the Space Coast to the accompaniment of a hyperactive percussionist. After the car stops and one of the generals asks how far away lies their destination. “Another five minutes, sir,” he is told, and both car and drummer ramp it right back up for another driving sequence. It couldn’t be more obvious if the word “padding” was superimposed on the screen. It’s played as straight as an arrow, it’s undeniably hilarious, and with this moment in the books, the Good Ship Silliness has set sail.

It’s startling how much competence FMTSM has going for it. Director Gaffney was an acclaimed documentarian and friend of . Perennial That-Guy James Karen gets a rare leading role. Lou Cutell will later earn notoriety for playing an appropriately named proctologist on Seinfeld. That’s Bond villain (and Crispin’s dad) Bruce Glover as an uncredited alien lackey. Martian princess Marilyn Hanold brings her experience as a Playboy Playmate to the role of the second-most-clothed woman in the film. And maybe they play those two pop songs produced by Hall of Fame music mastermind Bob Crewe way too many times, but darn it if they’re not catchy tunes.

On the other hand, the most skilled filmmaker would have struggled to assemble something logical our of the pieces here. Aliens with bald caps and hazmat suits. An android whose encounter with an extraterrestrial death ray turns him into killing machine whose face is half-lasagna. A plot to shanghai every bikini-clad (and white) young woman in Puerto Rico into a Martian repopulation program by placing them on a conveyor belt. It seems impossible to think that anybody thought the movie would be anything other than ridiculous, but there they are, sometimes hammy but always committed.

You have to admire the film’s scatterbrained approach to its own ridiculous plot. When our heroes, Adam and Karen, have to pursue the homicidal robot that was once their creation, they spring into action… by hopping on a Vespa and taking a leisurely drive through the streets of San Juan, as if they had just jumped into a Puerto Rican Roman Holiday. You may ask whether the movie is a schlocky exploitation film or a disguised travelogue; why not both?

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t have the advantages of sustained oddness that usually catapult the worst movies ever made into the weird pantheon. It lacks the earnestness of a Plan 9 From Outer Space, the flat-out jaw-dropping surprise of a Godmonster of Indian Flats, the sheer ineptitude of Manos: The Hands of Fate. This movie has to vie for the title purely on its own merits. Ultimately, it’s not the most entertaining bad movie out there, but it sure does make a solid go of it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie does have a weird and kitschy charm to it. Any film with a pool party scene that is interrupted by an alien attack is not without its unintentional humor.” – Alec Pridgen, Mondo Bizarro

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

 

EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

The film was a very British Guignol called Hangover Square, the story of a composer with a tendency to commit murder when stressed. The climax of the film is a performance of the composer’s concerto (actually the work of the legendary Bernard Herrmann), which culminates in his death in a cataclysmic inferno, still banging away at the piano. It’s not subtle.

Stephen SondheimFor the adolescent watching this tale unfold, it was a formative experience. He was so captivated by the dark story and Herrmann’s score that he rushed back to the moviehouse to watch the whole thing again in hopes of memorizing the sheet music to the villain’s composition. He wrote Herrmann a fan letter, which the recipient acknowledged was an unusual treat for a film composer. And years later, that young man had the opportunity to pay homage to his inspiration by using a familiar Herrmann chord throughout the score of a musical he had written, which just so happened to be about a murderous barber whose victims become the main ingredient in meat pies.

Stephen Sondheim was a noted cinephile, so it makes sense that movies would have a prominent role in his career. He was, of course, primarily a figure of the stage; long before his passing at the age of 91, he had cemented his reputation as perhaps the most significant creator in the history of American-style musical theater. But he got to indulge his love of film directly more than once; he won an Oscar for the song he contributed to the mélange of color and makeup that was Dick Tracy, he co-wrote the all-star puzzle box The Last of Sheila, and six of his shows made the jump to the silver screen, albeit none entirely successfully. He also made an impression on other filmmakers; audiences were treated to surprise appearances recently in films as diverse as Lady Bird, Knives Out, and Marriage Story. So although not a creature of film, he certainly made his mark.

But what am I doing here, talking about a Broadway composer on a weird movie website? Well, I think Stephen Sondheim has something to teach us about the role that personal vision and committed interest play in making a thing weird. Because while his reputation as the giant of American musical theater may rest on a foundation of rich, adventurous melodies and breathtakingly gymnastic and insightful lyrics, the thing that always kept him apart from the establishment – that marked him as an iconoclast of the highest order and denied him a true blockbuster – was his taste in material. No light comedies or mindless spectacles for him. His most dance-heavy show features tragic murders to end both acts. In search of pure comedy, he adapts plays that are 2,000 years old. Ask him to bring a movie to the stage and he’ll turn to an Italian film about a soldier is ensnared by the obsessive love of an ugly, sickly woman. Welcome to Broadway!

Even by Sondheim standards, my first experience with one of his shows was a doozy: a college production of Merrily We Roll Along, a story of lost idealism and the cost of one’s soul that has the temerity to unspool its tale in reverse chronological order. This stylistic Continue reading EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

APOCRAPHYA CANDIDATE: THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Wim Wenders

FEATURING: , , , Jimmy Smits,

PLOT: Following the death of a trust-fund kid at a downtown Los Angeles transient hotel, an unorthodox FBI agent arrives to interrogate the residents, enlisting the help of a mentally challenged man-child who holds a candle for a disaffected prostitute.

Still fromThe Million Dollar Hotel (2000)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The dream collaboration of a notoriously iconoclastic film director and a rock star whose imagination always skirts with pretension, The Million Dollar Hotel thumbs its nose at convention even as it dives into classic genres and tropes. The result is a film that rarely makes sense and borders on incompetence, but revels in its absurdities and comes out happier for all its quirks.

COMMENTS: Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World was, among other things, a piece of near-future science fiction in which he tried to envision a world almost like ours, but with just a touch of futurism. This approach extended to the soundtrack, for which the director solicited a murderer’s row of music legends—Talking Heads, R.E.M., Lou Reed, Patti Smith, among many—to envision their own sound at the turn of the millennium and contribute a song in that style. Included in that company was U2, a band for whom Wenders had recently directed a video, and which he enlisted to compose the title song. Clearly, Wenders and lead singer Bono hit it off. Which might explain why, when the real year 2000 finally arrived, Wenders would draw upon a story directly from Bono’s mind for the subject of his next film.

What they concocted together is almost a simulacrum of a detective movie. There is ostensibly a plot about the mysterious death of a powerful billionaire’s son (an uncredited ) who has tossed aside his wealth to slum it in an L.A. flophouse. There is a detective who comes into a tight-knit community to expose its secrets, and there are the members of that community who attempt to unite against the outside world while still profiting individually. But all this amounts to something leagues beyond a MacGuffin, becoming a hook so irrelevant that it’s hard to imagine there was any real goal other than to give each actor a chance to shape themselves into the weirdest character they could imagine. Their motivations and the excitement with which they pursue them are universally disproportionate and baroque. It’s as if Bono’s entire story treatment read, “Think ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but everyone in it is cr-A-zeeee!”

To call the performances mannered is to indulge in breathtaking understatement. Wenders seems to have told the actors to “go bigger,” and each answers the call. Davies leads the way with a performance that skirts dangerously close to Tropic Thunder’s warning about filmed portrayals of the mentally challenged. Smits is given free Continue reading APOCRAPHYA CANDIDATE: THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL (2000)

CAPSULE: KILLER NUN (1979)

Suor Omicidi

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DIRECTED BY: Giulio Berutti

FEATURING: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, , Lou Castel, Alida Valli

PLOT: Sister Gertrude, fresh off cancer surgery and crippled by  morphine addiction, experiences a crisis of faith as she finds herself entertaining impure thoughts and harboring murderous feelings.

COMMENTS: What a wonderfully depraved world we live in that could not only be a thing but be so plentiful that it would merit its own Wikipedia entry. The calling carries with it such a rich combination of power and repression, of mystery and denial, of sex and frustration, that it was probably inevitable that it would become a cinematic fetish object. So, now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?

Killer Nun never comes up with a particularly satisfying answer to that question. Which is odd, because all the pieces seem to be in place. We’ve got grisly murders. We’ve got deliciously nasty Bible readings. We’ve got Paola Morra ready to walk around the room completely starkers for no particular reason. Heck, look at that title. It sure feels like we’ve got all the elements in place for a delightfully smutty evening at the movies. And yet it never clears that very low bar.

Ultimately, the filmmakers aren’t willing to get down in the mud, which would be fine if they didn’t spend so much time showing off their rich and bountiful mud fields. Consider a scene where the central character, a nun with a history of drug addiction, goes into town, swaps out her habit for a dress, scopes out a local bar, and picks up a man for a no-strings-attached assignation. What a bold sacrilege this presents. Is this a swipe at the restrictive morals of the Church? A signifier of a mind resolutely on the road to madness? No, it’s just something to do, a scene that any self-respecting giallo is supposed to have, and it never comes up again. And that’s Killer Nun’s problem in a nutshell. It’s brought all the accoutrements of trash, but it’s not willing to do the work. I mean, for crying out loud, to cast Joe Dallesandro in your movie as a straight-laced model of propriety without a trace of irony is some kind of malpractice.

So thank heavens for Anita Ekberg, who is the only thing in the film that works on either side of the line. With her piercing blue eyes surrounded by ninja-star lashes, her Sister Gertrude cuts an imposing figure as she marches through the halls and practically bullies the strange variety of patients into every morning salutation and evening vespers. This lends potency to her own loss of control, because she knows that’s all that’s keeping her from being purely cruel. When she’s on the screen, accompanied by Alessandro Alessandroni’s hyperactive score with its wailing theremin and sinister plucked strings summoning bad vibes, Killer Nun flirts with the kind of low art it promises.

The Mother Superior’s declaration that “It’s a nun’s vocation to suffer” is as much a mission statement as the movie has. But it also regrets putting its heroine through that suffering, and that split personality makes Killer Nun a misguided and dull watch. Get thee to a more interesting nunnery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one doesn’t really watch KILLER NUN for its wrenching drama. No, the true pleasures to be found here are gleefully grotesque and often hilariously cruel…. A remarkable, macabre and truly mad movie…”–Chris Alexander, Alexander on Film (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Phoenix, who argued ” I found it to be surprisingly disturbing and effective. Some of its themes are sexual repression and lesbianism. And it’s hilarious. But weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: OVERDRAWN AT THE MEMORY BANK (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Williams

FEATURING: Raúl Juliá, Linda Griffiths, Donald Moore, Maury Chaykin

PLOT: Computer technician and cinephile Aram Fingal gets a forced vacation from his body as punishment for poor productivity; when the conglomerate loses his body, they transfer his mind to the mainframe, where Fingal wages war within the company in an effort to be restored.

Still from overdrawn at the memory bank (1983)

COMMENTS: The impulse to make Overdrawn at the Memory Bank was borne out of a good idea. At the dawn of the 80s, someone at PBS noticed the revolution in science fiction entertainment that had exploded upon the scene in the wake of Star Wars, and saw a lane for the public broadcaster in adapting some of the more literary works of the genre. The first attempt, a low-budget, high-concept take on Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, was an unexpected success. Thus emboldened, producers turned their attention to a John Varley short story about an office drone who finds himself trapped inside the mainframe of a supercomputer. And that is where all the good vibes surrounding this project ran out.

The film that resulted, captured on video and exemplifying the 80s in all its chroma-key glory, was a notorious bomb, remembered today primarily because of its appearance in an episode of.” That’s unfortunate, because while the production is undeniably poor, the idea at its center is still intriguing.

The basic story feels like a more optimistic riff on a theme of , with his ongoing interest in unknowable reality and the helplessness of the individual against colossal and uncaring forces. In addition, the burgeoning revolution in personal computers (which had  been named by Time Magazine as “Machine of the Year” only months before) was making the yet-unlabeled landscape of cyberspace into a more accessible backdrop for storytelling. Like the previous year’s Tron (with which Overdrawn’s plot is surprisingly similar), this is an early attempt to see the inside of a computer as a stage for intense drama.

It is here that this film’s producers run up against the gulf between aspiration and resources, which is in this case immense. The most successful science fiction manages to make the unreal seem real. Overdrawn comes nowhere close to clearing that hurdle. We’re barely two minutes in before the video toaster credits and synth-heavy score kick in, bringing a vibe that is just so very, very 80s. What follows is a parade of scenes set amidst re-dressed modern architecture, pages and pages of technobabble-laced dialogue, and multiple examples of green-screen special effects that seem to have come directly from the Action News Weather Desk. The production is SO much more ambitious than the abilities of the filmmakers can support, and it ends up coming across like some sort of fan film from another place and time.

The movie does have an ace up its sleeve, though: star Raúl Juliá. A famously talented actor, he’s a game performer and pulls off a much better Humphrey Bogart impression than a Shakespearean actor from San Juan has any right to accomplish. But his presence ends up working against the project. Every opportunity to help him fit in better is bypassed. Did his name have to be the decidedly Eastern European “Aram Fingal”? Might the actress playing his mother not have looked quite so Scandinavian? Could he have been a passionate fan of Zorro or Rudolph Valentino, rather than try and make him fill the shoes of Rick Blaine? (The attempt to replicate the setting of Casablanca—one of the most beloved films in the history of cinema—only accentuates the production’s shortcomings.) On the other hand, it’s possible that Bogie himself could not have pulled off an internal monologue delivered over stock footage of a baboon. But Juliá was clearly not the guy to overcome that particular hurdle.

Most of what makes Overdrawn at the Memory Bank odd is the spectacle of seeing such lofty concepts presented in such a lo-fi manner. But while it’s an amusing sight, it renders any attempt to take in the story on its own terms utterly impossible. What was inspired seems silly and what already looked dated is now ridiculous. This account is closed for insufficient funds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Those who complain about how bad the effects are, or how they have a hard time sorting out all the complexities of the plot, or how little sense this or that element makes, are missing the point here:  this film should not exist.  It’s strange, it has far too many ideas, it’s complicated, it actually adapts a story by a real science fiction writer, it’s way too ambitious for the money they had, and for goodness sake, it’s a science fiction film on PBS! No one would ever have made something like this. And yet they did…  Anything this strange deserves to be seen.” – Mark Cole, Rivets on the Poster

(This movie was nominated for review by “Michael,” who argued “The movie is terrible, but is also so weird and unique as to be entertaining.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)  

CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: P. J. Soles, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones

PLOT: Riff Randell battles the punk-hating administration at her high school by invoking the musical powers of her favorite band, The Ramones.

Still from Rock 'n Roll High School (1979)

COMMENTS: The Ramones were icons of minimalism. Progenitors of punk, they pioneered a sound that was somehow both retro and revolutionary, delivering two-chord, two-minute landmarks that had none of the feel of craft and all of the sensation of having been spewed out of the most primal reaches of the band members’ autonomic nervous systems. Everything about them was reduced to its bare essentials: a basic guitar-bass-drum setup, fronted by a flat, nasal vocal that was tuneful while making no pretensions to being musical, presented by a group that spoke to punk’s fierce independence with a façade of careful uniformity, from the matching leather jackets and torn jeans to the identical messy face-obscuring Kate Jackson hairstyles, and even extending to their manufactured noms de théâtre. Everything about them was carefully engineered to celebrate everybody by being nobody.

So the notion that the Ramones would be the centerpiece of a bubbly teenager’s every waking moment is a little dissonant. And that they would somehow come to have an entire feature film devoted to them—one with a substantial cult following—is nothing short of bizarre. It’s the domain of old people to complain that the kids are making idols out of empty shells, but the emptiness of the Ramones is part of their very essence. They’re almost antithetical to the idea of teenybop worship. To watch P J. Soles’ Riff Randell—a veritable firehose of giddy hyperactivity—go gaga for this quartet of empty t-shirts is to plunge headlong through the looking glass. Try to imagine a Disney Channel original movie where a precocious 12-year old learns self-confidence through the power of her favorite band, and that band turns out to be GWAR. (Note to Disney: Please greenlight this. I will absolutely write the script for you.)

But for the purposes of the Roger Corman film factory, the Ramones hardly matter. They’re answer to a Mad Lib wherein [INSERT NAME OF BAND] inspires kids to overthrow those dullard grownups. (It’s telling that Corman’s original suggestion was center the film around disco music, an idea that would have been truly transgressive if it had been filmed two years earlier and dared to address the politics of race and sexual orientation endemic to the genre.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has one goal, and it’s to tell the kids how much cooler they are than those stick-in-the-mud adults. And if we have to put our thumb on the scale to make the old people especially dorky and uncool, well hey, that’s just Roger Corman being a smart businessman.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of movie that Rock ‘n’ Continue reading CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)