All posts by S. Ryder

Steven Ryder is a quintessentially British lover of film in that he never really watches British films. Moderator of one of the internet's largest film discussion forums, TrueFilm, Steven is dedicated to lurching between trash and high art, often resulting in a cinematic whiplash of sorts.

CAPSULE: CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Bob Clark

FEATURING: Alan Ormsby, Anya Ormsby, Paul Cronin

PLOT: An amateur acting troupe, led by their eccentric and egotistical director, head out to an island to conduct experiments that merge theater with the recently deceased—namely a corpse named Orville.

Still from Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Children… is by no means a mainstream film, but most of its weird qualities stem from the fact it was made on such a small budget. While it isn’t a masterpiece, these limitations ultimately work in its favor as it pushes itself beyond the confines of a by-the-numbers zombie B-movie and attempts a sordid originality.

COMMENTS: Despite the romanticism in the idea of low budget filmmaking, especially in the horror genre, it isn’t very often that everything comes up roses. For every success like The Evil Dead or Halloween, we are also treated to tragedies of grand proportions like Birdemic or Troll 2. But even those films, celebrated for their complete lack of any direction or talent, make us forget about the numerous failures that never gain any traction at all. Rather more unknown than these contrasting successes and missteps, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things can be considered a relative triumph for a number of reasons, the primary one being that is isn’t a complete farce!

A good frame of reference here is a film I have previously mentioned, The Evil Dead, which so closely resembles Children that you can’t help but think Sam Raimi saw it multiple times before getting up the courage to embark on his own similar project. It should be noted, however, that Bob Clark’s film was not only made ten years before Evil Dead, but also on a fraction of Raimi’s tiny budget. Reportedly shot over a period of 14 days for only $50,000, you would be forgiven for thinking that Children… is worth leaving to the low-budget purists, but despite its clear aesthetic problems, it actually manages to be a thoroughly entertaining watch from start to finish.

With its undeniably dark and stodgy visuals, Clark seemed to know that his film needed a boost to keep the audience from faltering. The ace up his sleeve is a script that never slows down and gives opportunities for the actors to showcase their considerable talent rather than relegating them to basic stereotypes. Funny, self-aware, cheesy but sharp as hell, the writing in this film elevates it beyond another genre schlock piece. The characters play off each other and create an atmosphere of tension that goes beyond just the sense of dread emanating from the nearby graveyard. Zingers like “Get out of the grave, Alan, and let an artist show you how to call a curse down on Satan” and “man is just a machine than manufactures manure” are hardly groundbreaking, but enough to keep things interesting.

At the forefront of the charismatic and intriguing acting troupe is Alan (played by Alan Ormsby), whose verbosity and arrogance instantly makes you hate him, right up until the film’s final scene. The group dynamics are so fulfilling that Children… sometimes comes across as that live action “Scooby Doo” film that we all wanted, full of wonderful Seventies outfits (but sadly, no talking dog). That is, until Alan unearths a corpse named Orville and uses it to taunt and bully the other members of the troupe who feel the game (or artistic experiment) has gone a little too far.

After a slightly stodgy middle section featuring the purposefully grating character of Alan, the final horrific portion of the film is welcomed gleefully as we slip into bona fide horror territory. These last scenes obviously borrow heavily from Romero and slot in nicely to the ever-evolving culture of low budget horror filmmaking. Dark, dingy and with an anxiety-ridden score, it somehow works. Children… never set out to be perfect, and it never is, but its imperfections are the reason it survived 40 years of cinema and came out the other end, bloated and rotting, but still enjoyable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Truly weird, sometimes effective horror cheapie.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress

LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru; AKA Night on the Galactic Express

DIRECTED BY: Gisaburo Sugii

FEATURING: Voices of Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakumoto

PLOT: In a fictional town in a fictional universe during the annual star-worshiping festivities, a boy and his friend find themselves on a metaphysical train that takes them on an existential journey through space. Oh, and everybody is a cat.

Still from Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even without delving into the film’s brutally in-depth takes on loneliness, death and depression, Railroad is a tripper’s paradise, filled to the brim with such weirdness as glowing, candy-flavored herons, self-replicating apples, stairways that lead to the center of the universe, and beaches where each grain of sand is a jewel filled with fire. Rich in imagery and philosophy, it treads that always intriguing line between children’s entertainment and adult existentialism.

COMMENTS: A little background is very useful when approaching Night on the Galactic Railroad, else it might sucker punch you into hating it. Based on a 1927 book by Kenji Miyazawa, the film takes many liberties with the foundations of what was a very personal story to turn the novel into something with a distinctly anime flavor. The most controversial of these decision is to have (almost) everybody in the film drawn as a cat, an early indication that realism and logic will be thrown out the window despite the fact the film follows a very human path in regards to its character’s crises. The explanation for this decision has never really been given, but some have suggested it was simply due to the fact that it was easier to animate a cat than a human. Who knows if this is true, but nevertheless this town of star-worshiping felines all have very human characteristics. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with Giovanni, our young protagonist, as he is ostracized by his peers, bullied and insulted; he has no time to socialize due to his commitment to pick up milk for his sick mother.

Esoteric creative decisions lend even the relatively dull first fifteen minutes of the film an undeniable beauty. Tilted camera angles and close ups as Giovanni goes about his work in a publishing house after school turn the mundane into the mysterious, the bland into something otherworldly. The opening scenes’ dedication to create an alien world out of the familiar, along with the stillness and quiet tension on show, is closer to than anything else I have seen within (or outside of) the animation genre.

The film doesn’t stay on this route, though, and soon whisks us out of the medieval town. Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, leave the occult stargazing festivities (complete with Carnivale-style masks) and find themselves on a train hurtling through space.

While the audience sits in a mild shock at these events, the two cats Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FALLING (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Carol Morley

FEATURING: Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh

PLOT: The students at an all-girls school experience a collective mass hysteria after one of their group unexpectedly passes away. But what is really causing this strange illness, and can its spell be broken?

Still from The Falling (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Falling is a symphony of opposites, a nauseating yet excessively beautiful film, one that simultaneously rejects and then accepts the extremes of female sexuality. Purposefully instilled with a sense of obscurity, it could be viewed as an extended analogy or a horror film without a monster, depending on how weird you want it to be.

COMMENTS: Following in the footsteps of more familiar New Weird British directors and , Carol Morely has crafted a film full of plausible deniability. Actions and reactions seem to offer explanations, before wrenching them away from you at the last moment. Like its recent predecessors, The Falling is impressive in that it can be so disturbing in direct opposition to its visual presentation: stark and quiet, empty but beautiful, each frame uncluttered, the pace perfectly languid. Not many films can find stability between intellectual stimulation and visceral distraction, but The Falling manages it more often than not, primarily due to its dedication to the autumnal, timeless setting and lack of any exposition.

This lack of exposition could be mistaken for general weirdness in any other film but, a lot like ’s Innocence (another brilliant film set in an all-girls school), The Falling isn’t obfuscating for the sake of obfuscation. Morley has written extensively on her obsession with mass hysteria among teenage girls (a more common occurrence than you would think) along with the total lack of explanation for these mysterious events. Seeing the phenomenon presented on screen is a chilling, confusing experience. It is also an immediately arresting concept, and Morley runs with it, from the humble beginnings of an eerie teenage friendship through to sexual awakening, identity issues, and even suggestions of witchcraft. Whilst there is never an overt explanation for the fainting spells, facial tics and personality changes that the girls go through, the sexual awakenings of many characters seem to be a starting point for their sudden transformations. At some points, the film is a satire of Catholicism’s fear of sexuality: the idea that if just one teenage girl were to become sexually active and pregnant then it would sweep through their ranks like an epidemic, stealing their individuality away from them and creating beings who act impulsively, flustered by their sexual desires. At other times, it’s character-driven, a study of youthful diversion and identity crisis for our young protagonist Lydia.

The films provocation would not be as powerful without the stirring performances of the girls that inhabit the pristine surroundings of the school. Maisie Williams, better known as “Game of Thrones”‘s Arya Stark, sheds her more famous character with immense maturity, willing her character forward despite challenging scenes of incest, abuse and supposed insanity. In fact, credit should go to Morley and all her actresses for working together to eek out impressively subtle performances, especially in a film with such difficult content. The constant musical dream-pop interludes are a little excessive and redundant, and the conclusion isn’t quite worth the set-up, but if this is the future of British film, we should have a lot to look forward to because of the continually expressive and experimental efforts that Morley should certainly be a part of in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are shades here of Joseph Losey and Ken Russell, albeit with a staunch feminist perspective. The storytelling may waver in conviction after a woozily riveting setup, but not enough to impede healthy domestic arthouse prospects…” – Guy Lodge, Variety

CAPSULE: THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Frost

FEATURING: , Rosey Grier, Don Marshall

PLOT:  An elderly, racist, but brilliant doctor on the brink of death figures out a way to keep himself alive through the world’s first head transplant; however, he did not expect to wake up from surgery attached to the body of an African American convict!

Still from The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the brazenly irrational subject matter, The Thing With Two Heads wears its heart on its sleeve and actually feels rather grounded, even with a two-headed monster on screen for most of the running time. Wacky, sure. Weird? Maybe not.

COMMENTS: Any film fan would be forgiven for being simultaneously amused and repulsed by the title and the concept of The Thing With Two Heads. It sounds ridiculous, and it very much is ridiculous: a low-budget foray into pseudo-science that contains all the hallmarks of classic exploitation fare, unfortunately including the dire production values and clunky, distracting dialogue.

That being said, at times the film is genuinely fun, no more so than during its opening portion in which we follow the adventures of a two-headed gorilla, surgically created by Maxwell Kirshner (played by Oscar-winner Ray Milland—the casting may very well be the weirdest thing about the film). Watching a gorilla tear through a lovely upper class neighborhood before ripping up a mom and pop convenience store just to get his hands on some bananas would be a highlight in any film. Strangely, even though the film looks absolutely terrible (think Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), the effects with the gorilla suit, and those during the head transplant scene, are surprisingly potent, gruesome enough to make you squirm as the direction refuses to cut away, undeterred by the budget constraints that the rest of the film suffers from.

The Thing With Two Heads is certainly a change from the norm, but once it gets rolling, seeing a mixed-race two-headed creature talking about social prejudice begins to seem standard fare. In fact, the film plays everything so straight that it is difficult to tell whether you are watching an unintentional comedy that has missed its target as a serious social statement or a satire that isn’t particularly funny. Either way, the absurdity outweighs any message contained within the film, which seems more concerned with a 30 minute dirt bike escape than anything else; and, lets face it, Mad Max this is not. By the time the final tonal misstep arrives in a film full of inconsistencies it is difficult to tell whether you have had a good time or not; but, obviously, The Thing With Two Heads isn’t forgettable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Greer is] willing to do anything to get another chance at life, so he volunteers for a weird medical experiment…. The most incredible thing in ‘The Thing with Two Heads’ is not the head transplant, however, but what happens next. Within hours after Milland’s head has been screwed on, the two-headed escapee is on a motorcycle and being chased by no less than 14 police cars. Every one of them is destroyed during the chase, a process that takes so long that seven, or even five, squad cars might have been enough.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE EDITOR (2014)

DIRECTED BY,

FEATURING: , Matthew Kennedy, Adam Brooks

PLOT: A revered but mentally unstable film editor, who once lost four of his fingers on the cutting room floor, gets caught up in a classic Italian murder plot; as he struggles to prove his innocence, the bodies pile up in increasingly inventive ways.

Still from The Editor (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Editor is driven by and dedicated to its famously bizarre source material (the giallo film), but this brand of weirdness is a bit too self-conscious to make the List.

COMMENTS: The issue with the parody genre, especially in recent years, is the huge gaps in quality. For every Airplane there is a Leonard Part 6, for every Naked Gun there is a Meet the Spartans; movies that, instead of being an adoring send up of the source material, come across as facetious efforts to piggyback on the success of current trends. Basically, it is a good idea to tread carefully going into any parody, regardless of whether you are a fan of whatever is being roasted at the time or not.

With The Editor, however, Canadian film collective Astron-6 have thankfully fashioned a stylish, occasionally hilarious and inventive satire that doesn’t simply regurgitate worn out jokes but instead uses the tropes of the giallo genre to produce a unique experience. Astron-6 first burst onto the scene with the Eighties science fiction experiment Manborg, an entertaining but shoddy foray into science fiction. The Editor feels like a much more polished piece of work, while retaining the surreal comedy of its predecessors—a natural progression. Dedication to the visuals and violence separate this film form being just another lame attempt at parody; they have managed to perfectly replicate the colorful vibrancy, recognizable camera movements, and even the overtly unstable dubbing of classic giallo films. Along with a pulsating electronic score, the authenticity is quite the achievement. But is this only going to be recognized by knowledgeable fans of the genre?

Every actor throws himself or herself into their roles (especially the inspector who takes the meaning of “psychosexual” to a new level), and the direction draws some genuinely creepy moments from a script focused heavily on dialogue. There is an element of repetitiveness as the film reaches its conclusion, however, and the comedy begins to be used as a crutch to keep the story afloat, while being too self-aware to keep the viewer interested. Like many of its satirical predecessors, The Editor falls short of greatness because it just doesn’t have a story to tell.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not as much fun as it should be, and while you can certainly admire the skill of the filmmakers in adhering to giallo conventions, you need to be in a midnight-movie frame of mind to really appreciate this film.”–Sarah Boslaugh, Playback:stl (DVD)

READER RECOMMENDATION: “TOBY DAMMIT” (1968)

Reader recommendation from Steven Ryder

Note: ‘Toby Dammit’ is a segment filmed as part of Spirits of the Dead, an anthology based on ’s short stories. The other entries were “William Wilson,” directed by , and “Metzengerstein” by .

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Milena Vukotic, Antonia Pietrosi

PLOT: During a trip to Rome to film a Catholic Spaghetti Western, Toby Dammit, an alcoholic, drug-addled Shakespearean actor, falls deeper and deeper into uncertainty, pursued by a devilish young phantom.

Still from Toby Dammit (1968)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Any number of Fellini’s films could be given the “weird” seal of approval due to his preoccupation with dream imagery and Jungian psychoanalysis, but few are as quite deeply rooted in the surreal as “Toby Dammit.” Oktay Ege Kozak described “Dammit” as “8 ½ in Hell,” and seeing as how Fellini’s magnum opus does make the List, it would come as no real surprise to see this shorter, more blatant genre offering creep its way on as well.

COMMENTS: Spirits of the Dead, the anthology that includes “Toby Dammit,” isn’t particularly fascinating, and it is painfully obvious that Roger Vadim and Louis Malle, the directors of the other two segments, either care little about or did not know how to approach the subject matter. These are directors later made made campy science fiction flicks or serious wartime dramas, and neither of these genres reflect Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic roots as well as Fellini’s style does. Now, if producer Alberto Grimaldi had managed to get on board, as he originally intended, then we may have been looking at a late-sixties masterpiece of horror cinema, but instead we get two forgettable entries and one incredibly weird, incredibly original Poe adaptation from one of the giants of Italian film, fresh off the critical hits 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. Fellini confessed to never actually read the story he was supposed to be filming, which may have assisted him in bringing his own enduring cinematic style to the table. Aside from the title and the decapitation finale, nothing else remains from Poe’s original tale.

The film opens with disheveled Shakespearean actor Toby, played with a distinct charisma and style by Terence Stamp, drunk on a plane, preparing to meet the producer of his next film in Rome. There is no mistake that Fellini wanted Toby, already a frazzled mess of a man, to be driven further and further into madness, and it wouldn’t be glib to speculate that the red mist his plane descends into is a symbol for the Hell that is to follow—even if the jaunty, instantly recognizable score from frequent Fellini collaborator Nino Rota says otherwise. We follow Toby on his first trip to Rome and Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: “TOBY DAMMIT” (1968)