Category Archives: List Candidates

LIST CANDIDATE: SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES [LE FRISSON DES VAMPIRES] (1971)

AKA Strange Things Happen at Night

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sandra Julien, Jean-Marie Durand, Dominique,  (as Marie-Pierre Tricot), Kuelan Herce, Jacques Robiolles,

PLOT: A honeymooning couple stops at a creepy castle to visit the bride’s distant cousins, but

Still from Shiver of the Vampires (1971)

find their hosts have been turned into vampires.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The films of Jean Rollin come with a reputation/warning: their mix of artistry and exploitation isn’t for everyone, and they’re all variations on the same idea. The director’s formula is thick Gothic atmosphere, beautiful visuals, mild surrealism, nude female vampires, and an indifference to rational plotting. In terms of making the List, what this suggests is that one Rollin movie might be appointed to represent the director’s entire canon; but, is Shiver the chosen one? We’ll have to see them all to decide for sure.

COMMENTS: Plotheads need not apply to a Jean Rollin movie. Shiver of the Vampires does have a story, but it’s thin and generic, full of the usual staples of the vampire genre: coffins, stakes through the heart, crumbling castles, crucifixes. Rollin approaches this film more like a painter than like a storyteller, and you have to engage with the film as if you’re looking at an art exhibit rather than listening to a ghost story. Certain startling imagery jumps out at you by design—the vampire emerging from the grandfather clock, the goldfish bowl containing a skull, the deadly spike bra—but the decadent backgrounds are just as appealing to the eye. It’s the kind of film where curvaceous maidens in diaphanous gowns walk through dusty corridors carrying candelabras, and there’s always mist wafting across the tombstones at night. There’s ample nudity—the women of Shivers doff their duds at the slightest excuse—but it’s shot with an artist’s rather than a voyeur’s eye for the female form. Otherwise, however, the sexuality of vampirism isn’t presented with much subtlety; a female vamp is dispatched in a phallic staking ritual, and when nude vampires are exposed to sunlight they writhe in a torment that looks remarkably like orgasm. With liberal use of red gels, aquamarine backlights, and pigmented fogs, the color schemes are brilliantly unreal (proving the Eurohorror tradition of crazed chromatism well predates 1977’s Suspiria). A prog-rock guitar, drum and bass trio dither ecstatically over the action; the electrified score contrasts with the Gothic atmosphere, but it works well to ground the otherwise timeless tale in its contemporary era. There are also unidentifiable, animalistic howls that show up on the soundtrack at strategic points. A pair of nameless “bourgeois vampires” who bow and scrape, finish each other’s sentences, and lecture on the worship of Isis adds further oddness to an already strange story. Shiver is partly a tribute to and partly a parody of bloodsucker conventions, but the film’s overall tone is hard to pin down, except to say that it’s detached and dreamlike. The human victims’ reactions to their predicament are dazed and out of sync with reality, as if they’re drugged or hypnotized. Isle appears not at all terrified when a strange woman emerges from a grandfather clock in her room (and her modest attempt to cover her bare bosom is woefully inadequate).  After the groom witnesses a vampiric ritual he returns to the conjugal chamber but, rather than rousing his bride to flee, strokes her naked sleeping body. Terror transforms into lust quickly inside Shivers hermetic dream. For decades, Rollins’ slow-paced, arty, irrational musings on the vampire myth have frustrated horror fans looking for old-fashioned bloodletting, but they are subtly strange artifacts that reflect the unique preoccupations of their creator. These fetishistic documents are ultimately of more interest to fans of neo-surrealism than of horror.

The French title, Le Frisson des Vampires, does literally translate as “Shiver of the Vampires,” but “frisson” has a secondary connotation of “thrill” (like the pleasant spine tingles provided a good horror movie shock). Rollins’ two previous features had more salacious titles: Le Viol du Vampire (Rape of the Vampire) (1968) and La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire) (1970).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… [a] vexing piece of psychedelic nonsense…”–Robert Firsching, Rovi

BUNUEL’S SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms”-Luis Buñuel.

Simon of the Desert (1965) was Buñuel’s final Mexican film before moving to France. His Mexican period is often considered a repository of “anti-religious” films, although a more apt description might be “anti-ecclesiastical.”  This 45-minute pilgrimage is an incomplete work (due to haphazard funding), but even in its truncated state, it is a shockingly substantial work.

The ascetic fifteenth century Saint Simon Stylites () has spent his life atop a pillar in order to get closer to God. A wealthy patron has an even larger pillar built for the holy man and so, after six years, six months, and six days, Simon, reluctantly, comes down from atop his ivory tower, albeit briefly, to “move up” in the world. Detached irony abounds. As in Nazarin, Buñuel presents a religious figure as a fool, but a stubbornly determined fool to be identified with and admired, with detachment.

Still from Simon of the Desert (1965)Kurt Vonnegut once wrote an amusing observation about Christ and the Lazarus story. In his take on the narrative, Vonnegut imagined that, Lazarus’ resurrection, it was the recent corpse, not Christ, who became the celebrity with the crowd. Leave it for the masses to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. But, what Vonnegut was expressing was the inevitable chasm between prophet and audience.

Buñuel also emphasizes contrasts. Simon’s audience does not desire holiness. They crave tinseled parody, only because they do not know the difference. A handless man is resorted and immediately begins using his hand to slap an inquisitive child. Bunuel’s integrity and convictions astutely critique, not the faith itself, but the contemporary adherents to the faith, who, with their short attention spans, pedestrian tastes, poverties of intelligence and of aesthetics, are rendered consumers of spectacle as sacrament. Bunuel’s shift from the religious to the bourgeoisie was a natural development, seen flowering here.

The devil is, naturally, a woman, and Silvia Pinal agreeably fleshes her out.  She takes turns as a Catholic school girl, an androgynous messiah who performs a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction for the unfazed celibate, and finally as a mini-skirted Peter Pan, whisking Saint Wendy away from his Tower of Babel to a modern discotheque.

As with all of late Bunuel, he is no mere repeater of old narratives here. As St. Luis (and only a seasoned saint could be this irreverent), he spins a new parable, one that is organically textured and startling in its improvised finale. Bunuel was no hypocrite, and the unexpected loss of cash flow inspired a quixotic bleakness and an unequaled sense of purpose.

LIST CANDIDATE: TOMMY (1975)

Scott Sentinella’s writing has appeared in “The Carson News”, “The Gardena Valley News”, “Animato”, “Videomania Newspaper”, “Cashiers du Cinemart”, Dugpa.com and ALivingDog.com.

DIRECTOR: Ken Russell

FEATURING: , Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed , Eric Clapton, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Paul Nicholas, , Pete Townshend, John Entwhistle

PLOT: Captain Walker is missing and presumed dead in World War II, but when he turns up alive, his wife’s new lover kills him. Unfortunately, Walker’s son Tommy witnesses this, and the trauma leaves him deaf, dumb and blind. But Tommy can still play a mean pinball, and he becomes an odd messiah to an army of idol worshipers.

Still from Tommy (1975)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because, with that story line, it’s a musical—literally a “rock opera”—and because Ken Russell stages every single scene like something out of a bad acid flashback.

COMMENTS: The Who’s original 1969 album, “Tommy” is wonderful to listen to, but its supposed story is impossible to figure out without, so to speak, illustrations. In this film, one of the first recorded in multi-channel sound, director Russell “illustrates”everything in the most garish hues possible—and that’s a good thing. This grotesque, excessive rock musical was clearly a predecessor to MTV, with its non-stop assault of insane imagery; Russell, not exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, is aided and abetted all the way through by an all-star cast. The Who’s lead singer, the great Roger Daltrey, inevitably plays Tommy with a vacant, blue-eyed stare, and belts every song to the back of the theater in the manner that made him famous (on the original “Tommy” album, his singing is much more low-key). Elton John, as the Pinball Wizard, parades around on stilts, while Tina Turner, as the Acid Queen, threatens to rip the screen apart with her intensity (although Paul Nicholas, as Tommy’s physically abusive Cousin Kevin, gives her a run for her money). Meanwhile, Eric Clapton as the Preacher, Keith Moon as the sexually abusive Uncle Ernie, Jack Nicholson (Ann-Margret’s old co-star from 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge”) as the Doctor, and Oliver Reed, as Tommy’s stepfather, are relatively subdued (and, yes, the last two are pretty terrible singers). Topping them all is Ann-Margret, in an unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance, as Tommy’s guilt-ridden mother. Obviously, Ann-Margret’s show tune-trained voice is really not suited to singing Pete Townshend’s music, but that only adds to the film’s strange appeal. Ann-Margret manages to be simultaneously brilliant and over-the-top (as she often is—see her Blanche Dubois in the 1984 version of Streetcar Named Desire), but when the part calls for her to roll around in baked beans and chocolate sauce, she doesn’t hold back. Then you have any number of frenzied images: Sally Simpson’s husband—a dead ringer for the Frankenstein monster, Tina Turner transformed into a giant hypodermic needle, Clapton preaching in a church filled with statues of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Nicholas burning Daltrey with a cigarette—this is a musical, all right, but it’s not exactly Meet Me in St. Louis. This version of Tommy may be bizarre to the point of self-parody, but anyone who’s ever seen the disastrous, but similar, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (produced, like Tommy, by Robert Stigwood), will understand the very special talents of the late Ken Russell.

Unfortunately, the Region 1 DVD (as well as the Blu-Ray) of Tommy has no extras, except for a paper insert describing the film’s “Quintaphonic” soundtrack. Luckily, the movie looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Russell correctly doesn’t give a damn about the material he started with… he just goes ahead and gives us one glorious excess after another… Tommy’s odyssey through life is punctuated by encounters with all sorts of weird folks, of whom the most seductive is Tina Turner as the Acid Queen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

NOTE: By popular demand, The American Astronaut has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made! Please read the official Certified Weird entry. This initial review is left here for archival purposes.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge

PLOT:  A space pilot trades a cat for a “real live girl” whom he can exchange for the “Boy Who

Still from The American Astronaut (2001)

Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” whom he intends to swap in turn for the remains of a dead Venusian stud in order to collect a reward.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Genrewise, The American Astronaut could be described as many things—space western, garage band musical, nonsense comedy—but the one thing it indisputably is is a cult movie.  That is to say, it’s a specialized and peculiar little flick that has a devoted group of followers, and a larger contingent of outsiders who are nonplussed by its popularity.  I have to admit that in this case I lean slightly towards the second group.  American Astronaut is very weird (it has a character named “the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” for goodness sake), but some of it is tedious, like ninety minutes spent watching a clan of hipsters swapping in-jokes you aren’t let in on.  I can sense the magic other people get from the pic without being able to directly experience it myself.  This is a movie on the cusp of being certified as one of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, but it will require some reader acclaim to sway my opinion towards adding it to the List.  So get to promoting the movie in the comments, Astronaut fans.

COMMENTS:  How many movies can boast a line like “Gentlemen, the Boy Who Saw a Woman’s Breast has left our planet” or a musical number like “The Girl with a Vagina Made of Glass”?  How about a villain who is incapable of killing unless he has no possible grudge against his victim and a “real live girl” who (in this early stage of her development) is just a suitcase that plays a rock tune when you lift a slat on the casing?  The American Astronaut creates a unique, absurd, but consistent universe through a dry, deadpan DIY approach.  It’s set in a boy’s cosmos, where women are strange creatures who live on one planet while the men live on another.  The movie’s nonsense proclivities are a narrative film incarnation of the free-associative lyrics of writer/director Cory McAbee’s mildly punkish band, the Billy Nayer Show.  One song Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

CAPSULE: THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER, VOL. 2

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruce Byron, Kenneth Anger, Bobby Beausoleil, , André Soubeyran, Claude Revenant, Nadine Valence, , Marianne Faithfull, Myriam Gibril

PLOT: The disc includes six short, experimental, largely non-narrative films by Kenneth Anger

Still from Scorpio Rising (1964) on The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 2

completed between 1964 and 1972.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Compilations are ineligible for inclusion on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made.  Short films have an uphill battle to take a spot on the List that could be occupied by a feature, but either or both of Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising (each clocks in at just under 30 minutes long) are meaty and weird enough that they could hear their names called on the final roll.

COMMENTS: Kenneth Anger is one strange dude.  Author of the tabloid-style scandal tome Hollywood Babylon, devotee of , pal of rock stars and Jimmy Page, notoriously unreliable self-mythologizer, and winner of a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, Anger spends years working on films that only play for a few minutes (his most extensive work is only 35 minutes long).  He sometimes returns and reworks older movies a decade or more after they are released.  Even if you’ve never seen an Anger film, you’ve seen dozens of movies that have been influenced by his work; due to his innovation of scoring parades of surrealistic images to pop music, he’s sometimes considered the father of the music video (though he hates the form and has turned down offers to make videos).  The refracted images of films like Invocation of My Demon Brother also helped define the film style we now think of as “psychedelic.”  This collection contains Anger’s most important and influential works, from the 1960s and early 1970s—the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, when the formerly struggling underground academic filmmaker found himself embraced by the upcoming generation of hipsters. In order of presentation, the films covered in this collection are:

Scorpio Rising (1964): A young motorcyclist named Scorpio polishes his bike, gets dressed in leather, goes to a wild biker Halloween party, then participates in a race.  Scenes of James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and a “life of Jesus” movie are intercut into the Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER, VOL. 2

LIST CANDIDATE: FATHER’S DAY (2011)

This review first appeared in a slightly different form at Film Forager.  Alex Kittle’s complete coverage of the Toronto After Dark festival can be found here.

DIRECTED BY: Astron-6

FEATURING: , Conor Sweeney, , Mackenzie Murdock, Amy Groening, Lloyd Kaufman

PLOT: A crazed cannibalistic killer goes after fathers in his rape/murder spree.  One-eyed


assassin/maple syrup maker Ahab, young priest Father John Sullivan, paranoid streetwalker Twink, and mystery-solving stripper Chelsea all seek revenge, teaming up for a strange and scattered mission.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: An eye-patched vigilante, a topless stripper with a chainsaw, a nearsighted cannibal rapist, incest, demonic possession, trips to both heaven and hell, a non sequitur commercial for low-budget sci-fi “Star Raiders,” hallucinogenic berries: Father’s Day has a lot of weirdness to recommend it. It starts off as a fairly standard (and insanely gory) grindhouse throwback, but evolves into a bizarre and fantastic adventure that just might be weird enough for the List.

COMMENTS:  Known for their impressive output of horror and comedy shorts, Winnipeg-based collective Astron-6 combines DIY filmmaking with a sick sense of humor and unadulterated love for 80’s straight-to-video schlock.  After making a trailer for the fake exploitation flick “Father’s Day,”  offered the group $10,000 to produce a full-length feature of the concept.  At the start it seems like a standard, and completely gruesome, grindhouse throwback with grisly close-ups of penis mutilation and sickening rape/murders set alongside over-the-top character archetypes and an enthusiastic score.  As Ahab (Adam Brooks), Father John (Matthew Kennedy), and Twink (Conor Sweeney) team up in the wake of several close-to-home father murders, it begins to take a turn for the ludicrous and eventually plunges into all-out wacky fantasy, seeming to forget its initial narrative and stylistic leanings—and becoming better for it.

With real pig intestines, buckets of fake blood, and a well-laid green screen, Father’s Day maintains a dark, grungy aesthetic that works well with its 70’s appropriations while exuding DIY innovation that sets it apart from some of its peers.  Steven Kostanski’s stop-motion hell creations and an extended trip around the world for Father John are among the many segments that vary in style and tone.  There’s even a goofy commercial for a fake Star Wars rip-off thrown in about two-thirds of the way through (the feature itself is introduced as a “midnight movie” tv program).  Astron-6 seems to have hundreds of ideas and little interest in streamlining, resulting in a surprisingly dense 99 minutes as myriad references, off-kilter jokes, side-trips, and subplots arise and descend.  Luckily, most of them work, but the ones that don’t result in some unevenness, especially in the overall tone.  The noticeable shift towards the middle is somewhat jarring, but not a dealbreaker.

Father’s Day may be sick and twisted in many ways, but it manages to be most of all fun.  The Astron-6 gang looks like they’re having a blast just being silly together as the plot becomes more and more ridiculous.  The whole cast is great, injecting equal amounts of parody and imagination into their roles, and I especially enjoyed the main three male leads, who have excellent comedic chemistry.  The film’s biggest flaw is its tonal inconsistencies, but for many viewers the inclusion of so many ideas and exploitation references will likely be appreciated.  Astron-6 decided to really go all-out for this film, and by holding nothing back they will impress many and alienate those who wouldn’t get it anyway. And I have a feeling they’re fine with that.

Father’s Day official site.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With a surreal plotline, exceptional acting, a host of hilarious one-liners, and a large, beautiful cast of many many almost naked women this is one highly recommended giggle & gorefest you really shouldn’t miss.”–Rick McGrath, Quiet Earth (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo

FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein,Gérard de Bédarieux

PLOT: Schoolboys stage a revolt at a French boarding school.

Still from Zero de Conduite (1933)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTZéro de conduite is an important historical film.  It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by (If…)  With its dwarf headmaster, disappearing balls and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner.  Its mildly surreal oddness nudges the needle on the weirdometer, but, despite its near-legendary status, it’s not thoroughly strange enough to make its way onto the List on the first ballot.

COMMENTS:  Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films.  The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29.  Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.

By banning Zéro de conduite, the director’s film about an imaginary rebellion in a boys’ boarding school, for thirteen years, the French censors only augmented Vigo’s legend.  From the perspective of patrons who are used to seeing political leaders openly mocked and clitorises graphically snipped off in movie theaters as they munch on popcorn, the idea of a movie with only a single “merde!’ and no violence, fetal rape, human centipedes, or even an obvious political target would be banned for over a decade is almost unimaginable.  The film contains hardly audible whispers of schoolboy homosexuality, but it was suppressed not for these but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.”  Vigo’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian philosophy, which pervades the film’s 44 minute running time, was too hot and subversive for 1933 sensibilities.

Today, of course, the movie is notably tame.  In fact, if you’ve been exposed to any of the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)