Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1973)

La morte ha sorriso all’assassino

DIRECTED BY: Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D’Amato)

FEATURING: Ewa Aulin, Sergio Doria, Angela Bo, Klaus Kinski

PLOT: Greta is dead. Greta is not dead. Greta is dead. Eva is jealous. It’s the early 20th-Century. H̶e̶r̶b̶e̶r̶t̶ ̶W̶e̶s̶t̶, I mean K̶l̶a̶u̶s̶ ̶K̶i̶n̶s̶k̶i̶, I mean Doctor Sturges tries some re-animating. Walter’s father returns. A cat appears. They’re brother and sister.

Still from Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTDeath Smiles on a Murderer plays out like a $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s a musical score that constantly suggests the movie will collapse into soft-core pornography, plenty of sudden and inexplicably violent murders, a cluttered timeline, and Klaus Kinski once more seeming as if he’s acting in an entirely different movie. Plenty of choice, yes, but the overall crumminess makes you question the six-dollar outlay.

COMMENTS: Swanning in just to grab his paycheck, Klaus Kinski adds a bit of his own supernatural allure to an otherwise pointless giallo outing.

Composer Berto Pisano keeps the audience on its toes as he veers between grunge eldritch Western guitar riffs and pornographic melodies, adding, at least in his own unique way, to the muddled horror experience.

Not one to be restrained by coherency, Aristide Massaccesi uses every camera trick he learned as a cinematographer to keep the image moving even while the story goes nowhere.

Falling into the realm of “so-bad-it’s-crummy”, Death Smiles on a Murderer ends up in that unfortunate “Fulci-Valley”: never good enough to merit much respect, never bad enough to inspire wonderment.

As you may have been able to tell from the above grab-bag of opening lines, there are about as many (dismissive) ways to approach this movie as there are reasons to wonder why the director couldn’t either get his act together or abandon it entirely. I’ve been sitting on this review for some weeks now, having let the experience of watching Death Smiles on a Murderer sit awkwardly in the back corner of my brain, and am only now taking up the challenge of completing it after some direct prompting from the authorities. Despite this very loaded start, I’ll do what I can to give this thing a fair shake.

Aristide Massaccesi (better known as “Joe D’Amato”) directed not quite two hundred movies over the course of his career, and unfortunately it shows. Even more telling is that this is the only movie of his that he was proud of enough to attach his actual name to. This twisted tale of Italian-looking, German-named aristocrats collapses shortly after the formulation of the premise: a young woman (Ewa Aulin) arrives at a villa (or perhaps more appropriately, a “Schloss”) after a carriage crash that kills the crazy coachman, having no memory of her preceding life. The nobles (Angela Bo and Sergio Doria) on whose property she crashes immediately take her in and, after having her looked over by the local creepy doctor (Klaus Kinski), both fall in love with her. As my opening sentence suggested, things almost veered into Eurotrash art-porn. Alas, they did not. I’m not saying I demand art-porn from all my ’60s and ’70s low budget Italian movies, but when the score demands it and nothing else is on offer, it’s a letdown when it doesn’t show up.

But what goes on? Everything that does, goes wrong. There are pointless fish-eye lens shots of a menacing hunch-backed psycho intercut with shots of a fleeing maid; endless corridors and staircases abound, advertising just how abandoned the castle site is; Kinski’s doctor character gets killed well after he’s gone off into his own sub-movie that involves both Incan black magic and Day-Glo re-animation fluid; and if I could talk about the insane cat-attack scene without breaking into a smirk, I might give it a go.

It’s a pity, too, because Massaccesi/D’Amato very obviously loved this film (expressing his pride in no uncertain terms in an interview included on the disc), but it’s more of a camera-man’s résumé (and a pretty weak one, at that) than a movie. Not even two additional screen-writers could save this incoherent and very occasionally ambient mess of giallo, genre, and Kinski tropes. But, I suppose I can’t say I’m unhappy I saw it. That’s about as fair a shake as I think I can muster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Narratively speaking, it doesn’t make for the most graceful of mash-ups: there are times when the asides feel so extraneous that you find yourself wondering just what they have to do with, well, anything. D’Amato doesn’t exactly provide the most compelling answers for some of them, especially the weird, wild digression involving Kinski’s doctor.”–Brett Gallman, Oh, the Horror! (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: LORD LOVE A DUCK (1966)

DIRECTED BY: George Axelrod

FEATURING: Roddy McDowall, Tuesday Weld, , Lola Albright

PLOT: From his prison cell, preternaturally wise high schooler Alan Musgrave recounts his efforts to transform bubbly teenager Barbara Ann Greene into a star, as well as the insanity and destruction that trailed his efforts along the way.

Still from Lord Love a Duck (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lord Love a Duck is an angry satire, casting aspersions on the modern obsessions of society alternately with a raised eyebrow and a hoarse scream. This can manifest in odd ways, from sarcastic jabs at timely fads to a blatant disregard for internal logic. It’s plenty strange, but at this point in our listmaking, the end product is ultimately too disjointed to work well, even on its own terms.

COMMENTS: Lord Love a Duck is the kind of movie that makes you pity marketing executives. Faced with a story that calls out America as a place of grotesque ambition and blithe idiocy, particularly in the form of its teenagers, the promoters clearly decided to lean into the thing that the movie purports to loathe, namely a wacky teen sex comedy. Which, to be clear, Lord Love a Duck is decidedly not.

How else to explain hiring George Axelrod, the screenwriter behind the acidic thriller The Manchurian Candidate, to transplant Al Hine’s novel about witless Iowans to that famed black hole of self-obsession, Hollywood? Axelrod wastes no time in savaging the misguided priorities of this society, starting with a high school that resembles a bank office tower and taking aim at every entity it can find. Basic school subjects are renamed to sound easy-going. The police are whiny and needy. The only movies this movie-drenched culture makes have the word “bikini” in the title. The local house of worship joyfully proclaims itself “The First Drive-In Church of Southern California” (a thinly-veiled swipe at the real-life progenitor of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral). Our world is morally bankrupt, this movie says. Look upon thy works and despair.

If this sounds more like a dark tragedy than a goofy farce, Lord Love a Duck‘s response is, “Why can’t it be both?” The film’s tone swings between extremes: the same motion picture that puts Barbara Ann and her estranged father in a taboo-teasing, orgasmic fantasy of fruit-themed cashmere sweaters has no problem turning around and watching the girl’s mother spiral downward into drinking and suicidal depression. This cinematic whiplash applies to characters, too: Martin West’s Bob, whom Barbara Ann will marry in a misguided burst of sexual desire, declines from sly allure to misplaced uprightness to outright blissful incompetence. (“He’s a total idiot,” says his own mother.) Lord Love a Duck is whatever movie it needs to be in the moment, logic or continuity be damned.

By all rights, this should be Barbara Ann’s movie, especially given Tuesday Weld’s powerhouse performance. We are given an early clue to her character when she tells Alan that she fears switching to a new high school will destroy her hard-won popularity and status: “Everybody has got to love me,” she pleads, both fierce and desperate, and without the obviousness that could easily accompany the line. But her character shows very little agency in feeding her insatiable lust. No, that all falls to Alan, who promises to fulfill her every desire, and schemes to deliver.

Which leads to the strange hole in the center of the movie: Alan, or as he alone calls himself, Mollymauk. What does it mean to cast 36-year old Roddy McDowall, with his lilting English accent and prissy demeanor, as the smartest kid in high school, conqueror of muscle-bound quarterbacks, outwitter of adults, and ostensible sole voice of reason in a vulgar world? (And why always white pants?) The cognitive dissonance of his casting is magnified by the utter vacancy of his character. Alan is impossible: plotting blackmail against the principal, installing himself as a resident in Ruth Gordon’s house, establishing “inadvertent” connections with Hollywood producers. He’s a walking deus ex machina, able to supply whatever is needed to advance Barabra Ann (and the plot) forward. And for what? He seeks no personal gain, gainsays his own confession, and even manages to go back and graduate high school after years’ worth of action has transpired. If we hadn’t seen him interact with others (and possibly murder four people), he might easily be mistaken for her Tyler Durden. As it stands, Alan is a cipher, the supporting character somehow sitting at the film’s center.

Some satires are missiles, homing in their targets with precision and righteous anger. Lord Love a Duck is a grenade, spraying shrapnel anywhere and everywhere it can reach. The rage is real, but impotent. The filmmakers want you to be as angry as they are at the state of this pop culture-obsessed world. And like Barbara Ann, who ends the movie with a fame of dubious quality and longevity, they have no idea what to do once they’ve gotten what they wanted.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Axelrod described it as a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove, and while that’s apt, no soundbite can do justice to the scope and breadth of its warped vision…the film’s all-encompassing satire and comic density suggests he might have used up all of his ideas in one place. If so, he went out in a blaze of glory, with one of the weirdest, most brilliant teen movies ever made.” – Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club

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

CAPSULE: CAFE FLESH (1982)

“Go play in the fallout.”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian (as Rinse Dream)

FEATURING: Michelle Bauer (as Pia Snow), Andy Nichols, Paul McGibboney, Marie Sharp, Tantala Ray, Dennis Edwards, Kevin Jay

PLOT: “Able to exist, to sense… to feel everything, but pleasure. In a world destroyed, a mutant universe, survivors break down to those who can and those who can’t. 99% are Sex Negatives. Call them erotic casualties. They want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill. The rest, the lucky one percent, are Sex Positives, those whose libidos escaped unscathed. After the Nuclear Kiss, the Positives remain to love, to perform… and the others, well, we Negatives can only watch… can only come…to … Cafe Flesh…”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Cafe Flesh is a post-apocalyptic adult film about people who become violently ill from human touch. Generally speaking, adult films are pro-sex, so it is definitely a unique entry in the world of adult cinema. Cafe Flesh was not the only post apocalyptic adult film—it was a popular sub-genre in the 1980s—but I do think it might have been the first. The copious cutaways to the gawking, impotent patrons during sex shows were peculiar, but completely relevant to the plot. As odd as they were they fit in the context of the film. The first couple of performance-art sex scenes were definitely wacky. A lonely housewife is seduced by a milkman in a rat mask while three grown men dressed like babies look on from their high chairs. A guy in a huge pencil headpiece bangs one of the broads in the office while the naked receptionist looks on typing and repeatedly asking “Do you want me to type a memo?” Cafe Flesh definitely teeters on the edge of weirdness, but forced at gunpoint to answer “weird or not weird,” I would have to go with “not weird.”

COMMENTS: I was a huge fan of Stephen Sayadian’s Dr. Caligari and couldn’t wait to check out some of his other work. Turned out, his other features were all adult films. My exposure to hardcore films at that time was pretty slim. After checking out Night Dreams and Cafe Flesh, however, I was inspired to check out several other adult titles from the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, very few were as entertaining or as unusual as Stephen Sayadian’s.

The plot verbiage above is taken directly from the film’s introduction. The primary focus is on two of the club’s regulars, Nicky and Lana, “The Dagwood and Blondie of Cafe Flesh,” so dubbed by the club’s delightfully sarcastic emcee Max Melodramatic. I gathered from the film’s opening statement that the 99% of the population do not only become physically sick by human touch, but are also impotent and couldn’t get the job done anyway— although it really doesn’t go into much detail on the subject. The post-apocalyptic victims gather together at Cafe Flesh to gawk at art noveau hardcore sex shows. The performers are not volunteers, by any means. Enforcers are out there to flush out sex-positives who are not performing. Angel, a doe-eyed virginal lass from Wyoming, is taken away to do her part in entertaining the 99%.

If you were impotent and human touch made you vomit, would you really want to go to a sex club? They mock the torture of the audience numerous times, the majority of the abuse coming from the aforementioned emcee. Andrew Nichols gives a genuinely standout performance. He delivers his wordy dialog with complete ease; I did not question for a second that he was the emcee of a seedy post-apocalyptic sex club. Also stepping up to the plate and knocking it out of the park is beautiful Michelle Bauer (billed here as Pia Snow, the name under which she made a few adult films at the start of her career). Bauer should be a familiar face to those of us who enjoy 1980s horror cinema. She appeared in a ton of horror flicks: The Tomb, Terror Night, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Nightmare Sisters, and Deathrow Diner, to name a few. I found her character here to be so very likable, I really wanted her to have a happy ending, and indeed she does.

Obviously, considering the plot, the sex is limited strictly to the shows the sex negatives watch. Dripping with 1980s flare and fashion, these stage shows are creative and well-costumed. Stephen Sayadian’s films embrace everything that was fabulous and flattering from that decade: sharp angular silhouettes, bold solids, wide black and white stripes. It was all about geometry then—at least, the cool stuff was. I have been suitably impressed with the sets and costumes for all three of the Sayadian films I have seen. The superb synth soundtrack from Mitchell Froom hits every right note; absolutely perfect musical accompaniment. I love this soundtrack so much that I own it. Black and white striped teddies, angular phone booths, sunglass-bespectacled studs, naked ladies in cases—there is just so much to say about the aesthetics here.

Cafe Flesh is a visual treat that oozes the 1980s with good performances and a badass soundtrack. A highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, apocalyptic adult adventure.

Fun fact; if you do a Google search for an adult film title, its IMDB listing is usually the first or second hit that will come up. If, however, you are on the IMDB website and search that title, it will not come up at all, unless you use the advanced search feature and toggle the button to “include” adult titles every time.

GoreGirls’ Dr. Caligari review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Night Dreams review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Cafe Flesh photo gallery (NSFW)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in terms of sci-fi pornography set in a post-apocalyptic netherworld, you can’t anymore cerebral than this… Sex Negatives force the Sex Positives (the 1% left unaffected by the fallout) to perform bizarre, surrealistic sex acts for their amusement.”–Yum Yum, House of Self-Indulgence (DVD)

CAPSULE: KALEIDOSCOPE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Jones

FEATURING: , Sinead Matthews, Anne Reid

PLOT: A lonely ex-con tries to muddle through life and find romance, but it seems his mother is determined to reassert her domination over him.

Still from Kaleidoscope (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTKaleidoscope toys around with perception and time in a… kaleidoscopic kind of way, but everything gets wrapped up pretty nicely (a little too nicely for the likes of us). It must be said, though, that the protagonist’s mother cranks up the creepy factor to within throwing distance of serious consideration.

COMMENTS: Maintaining a constant sense of unease while being both sweet and unsettling is a tough balancing act for a movie, and such films often pass by unnoticed. And as there are just so many movies to watch, even if your job is to watch them, it can be hard both to find the time to watch the right movies and to find the right movies to fill your time. Kaleidoscope is as understated as its melancholy protagonist, and it’s easy to miss: it’s foreign, low budget, and its biggest star is a niche (albeit incredibly talented) character actor. I would never have watched this if I weren’t a “366” reviewer; having done so, I suspect it will be right up the alley of many “366” followers.

Carl (Toby Jones) is a lonely fellow living quietly in a clapped-out council estate. Tonight, though, is special, as he’s arranged a date with an outgoing young woman named Abby (Sinead Matthews), making the rendezvous at the appropriately named bar “Lust.” Returning to his flat afterwards, they chat, share drinks (he’s a teetotaler, though), and even dance together (that’s right: you get to see Toby Jones dancing to Dubstep in a shirt as loud as the music). Then things start to go badly: Carl gets an unwanted phone message from his mother, his drink gets spiked, and Abby may only have gone on the date in order to case the joint. The next morning, Carl awakens to find himself on his couch not remembering much. Details slowly coalesce, suggesting he may have murdered—again. Panicking, the last thing he needs is a surprise visit from his hated mother (Anne Reid). Of course, she arrives.

The ickiness of Carl’s mother is hard to overstate. Anne Reid’s performance is about as knockout as a low-key psychodrama will allow. She’s excessively sweet (she cooks for her son, cleans his apartment, and even offers him a £90,000 check by way of apology… for something) while being surreptitiously domineering (Carl is obliged at one point to bandage her injured leg after cleaning it up). And she has a history of—probably—taking advantage of him sexually. This leaves the viewer finding her by turns unpleasant and staggeringly creepy. There was one scene in particular that started out merely as uncomfortable before going so far as to force me to shout at the television, “Oh God, No!” (That, dear reader, is quite an achievement considering the dozens of disturbing movies I’ve watched over the years.)

While other reviewers have had the recent misfortune of reviewing forgotten movies that deserve that fate, I’ve typically lucked out with watching ones that merely fell below the radar and stuck there. Kaleidoscope is nothing earth shattering, but it doesn’t need to be. In the same “Mother-as-Monster” genre as ‘s Psycho, it tells the tale of a child being broken by the very person who should have been his protector. As his hallucinated dead father assures him (“I don’t blame you. She filled your mind with poison”), Carl is hardly responsible for the collapse of his life. Kaleidoscope, with its subdued shatter-view, nicely toys with the audience in a far more congenial way than Carl’s mother toyed with him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The eponymous optical instrument gets a full symbolic workout in ‘Kaleidoscope,’ an intricately crafted, infinitely wrongfooting psychological thriller in which conflicting realities coalesce, diverge and regroup like so many shifting formations of jewel-colored glass.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on casette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, it’s enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: INHERITANCE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Tyler Savage

FEATURING: Chase Joliet, Sara Montez

PLOT: A carpenter inherits a northern California villa from the biological father he never knew; the place is haunted by family secrets.

Still from Inheritance (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This indie psychological horror has only a few bare scraps of weirdness scattered throughout infrequent dream sequences.

COMMENTS: When carpenter Ryan is told his biological father has died, his expression is detached and brooding. It won’t change much throughout the rest of the movie. That’s not to say Chase Joliet’s performance is bad; it’s just one-note, by design. Inheritance starts in a  solemn mood and keeps it consistently gloomy from beginning to end. The movie barely cracks a smile, and never tells a joke. The emotions simmer, never quite boiling over into catharsis. Even the sex is serious. The tone is meant to convey a mix of subtle melancholy and lurking menace, but it often skirts too close to the borders of ennui.

The titular inheritance is a 2.5 million dollar villa on the northern California coast. The property is a windfall whose sale would supply a great nest egg for him and his fiancée Isi (Sara Montez) to start their life together; but the husband-to-be feels the need to linger in the home while silently working out his feelings about his biological heritage through a series of obliquely symbolic dreams of about his ill-fated parents and other ancestors. Ryan’s psychology revolves around fear that he will turn out like his biological father—although we get few meaningful hints what dad was like—but he also his has issues with jealousy, and hints of ambivalence about fatherhood. He struggles as much with accepting his upcoming responsibilities as a family man as he obsesses over his biological heritage; Isi suspects the latter is distraction from the former. With our main character so closed off, it falls on Montez to provide some the movie with some life. This she does, literally and figuratively. Hers is the more appealing, and stronger, character.

The cinematography, courtesy of Drew Daniels (It Comes at Night), is the film’s best asset, alternating bright beach scenes with well-lit nighttime dreamscapes. (In contrast to Ryan’s clouded psyche, his home is about the sunniest haunted house you’ll ever see.) Isolated shots are poetic; whiskey cascades over ice in slow motion, scored to the sound of ocean surf. Inheritance is well-crafted, but it’s too slow and monotone for most audiences, with too little dramatic payoff. About one hour into the movie, when a ghostly figure tells Ryan “I trust you know what to do now,” I caught dim echoes of The Shining. Then, I realized that by this point in ‘s ghost story, we’d already seen the blood in the elevator, the spooky twins, a foreboding Room 237, and starting to lose both his temper and his mind. Inheritance had yet to really get into gear, and although it tries to cram a lot of action into an effective final fifteen minutes, it isn’t quite worth the leisurely trip it takes to get there. The movie has a sophisticated psychology and there’s a lot of talent involved on both sides of the camera, but it doesn’t quite achieve its ambitions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie’s last 20 minutes are a deftly woven, completely beguiling amalgamation of surrealist nightmare and pure state-of-nature human dread.”–Shawn Macomber, Rue Morgue (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE (1967)

Recommended

AKA Marat/Sade

DIRECTED BY: Peter Brook

FEATURING: , , Glenda Jackson, Michael Williams

PLOT: The director of the Charenton asylum permits the prisoners to put on a play about the murder of one of the architects of the French Revolution; the machinations of the play’s notorious author, combined with the unique insanities of the cast, consistently threaten to derail the production.

Still from Marat/Sade (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marat/Sade is easy to admire but difficult to love, purposely distancing itself from its audience with a presentational style, a remote historical setting, and characters who are all but impossible to empathize with. By putting the great debates over the efficacy and morality of revolutionary fervor into the mouths of the sick and deranged, the movie declares its allegiance to a stranger flag. But while it is confrontational and occasionally repellent, Marat/Sade is still a thoughtful, methodical, and ultimately a sober work.

COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a play shows up on Broadway that is so alive with the enthusiasm and commitment of its cast, so daring in its subject matter, so determined to break away from the complacency and redundancy of its contemporaries, that it becomes a smash on the scale of the more attention-getting musicals. Recent years have seen plays such as “Angels in America,” “August: Osage County,” and “Take Me Out” demand the spotlight; in 1966, it was “Marat/Sade” that was all the buzz in the theater world. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’ original German-language play essentially launched the British fringe, it traveled across the Atlantic to dazzle America, becoming not only a hit but also shorthand for subversive, challenging theater.

So a movie version has a lot to live up to, and it’s a tribute to director Peter Brook’s vision that he manages to find the cinematic elements in the staging of a play. For Marat/Sade is working at multiple levels: a film of a play screening before an audience in which a play is being performed for an audience. It’s easy to lose track of which one you should be following. Consider the choices de Sade makes in casting his production. His Marat is portrayed by a paranoiac, Corday is a narcoleptic, Duperret a sex criminal. How much importance we should ascribe to these choices? Is this de Sade jesting with the historical figures? Is it Weiss assigning another layer of meaning to characters already laden with subtext? Is the whole thing a joke, designed to set up situations like Corday’s frequent mid-play naps? If theater is an author’s medium and film is a director’s medium, but one of the protagonists is a writer and director of the very work we’re watching, just who the hell is responsible?

Brook takes great pains to remind us that we are watching a play. The character of the Herald is constantly there to remind the actors of their lines. A chorus frequently chimes in with musical numbers that sound like lesser Newley/Bricusse tunes. And we get shots of the audience watching from the other side of the prison bars. But we get just as many hints that this is an impossible play. The script seems all too prepared to address the objections of the asylum director in dialogue. Our Marat seems not an actor at all, but the very man back from the dead, and de Sade engages him in debate as if he were the genuine article. And how the heck did this collection of crazies learn all these elaborate speeches, anyway? Whenever you think you’ve got your footing, Marat/Sade is there to give you a good shove.

Possibly the finest compliment you can give Marat/Sade is that you finish it thrilled and exhausted, but also unsure if you understood any of it. In trying to figure it out, I find it helpful to go back to that monstrously long (possibly even Guinness record-worthy) title, which is usually trimmed down to highlight the ostensible antagonists of the piece. In doing so, possibly the most important word to understanding the work as a whole is lost: “asylum.” In assessing the French Revolution, a particularly bloody uprising that overthrew a monarchy and then blundered through violence until another dictator arrived to grab control, it seems as though no one involved had the wisdom or foresight to anticipate the bloodshed that would result. By putting the subject in the hands of the insane, it specifically labels the enlightened masters of the uprising as insane themselves, and by placing the play under the auspices of a politician who represents the new dictatorship, it goes for broke and says everyone is crazy. Revolution is bloody, violent, destructive. To think otherwise, or to think that it won’t reach you, is dangerous folly, and Marat/Sade wants you to know that even if—especially if—you think you’re in control, then you’re next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The typical dish or cable viewer, then, might utter ‘What the hell is this?’ and gaze upon the weirdness only momentarily, without even having put down the remote… Strange scenes can be felt but not always understood, and perhaps its impossible to do so.” – Brian Koller, Films Graded (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “pretty strange, to say the least.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ZACHARIAH (1971)

DIRECTED BY: George Englund

FEATURING: John Rubinstein, , , Country Joe and the Fish

PLOT: The title character is a young gun on a quest to become a gunslinger in the old west, championing his way through the stock trials of a western shoot-em-up, complete with a sidekick; several rock bands come along along for the ride.

Still from Zachariah (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a pity, but after you get past it being a comedy-western with great rock bands of the era in it, this movie ends up being a standard period piece of hippie tomfoolery, made to accompany a six-pack of brewskies and a well-packed bong… but a long ways from being weird, despite being connected to half the movies on this site.

COMMENTS: It’s hard not to get your hopes up when you check out the credits of Zachariah. First, there’s Don Johnson and the band Country Joe (McDonald) and the Fish—famous for the Woodstock “Fish Cheer.” Other bands include James Gang, White Lightnin’, and the Julliard-trained New York Rock Ensemble. Then you find out it was written by Joe Massot and the members of the legendary Firesign Theater, and that at some point even George Harrison discussed producing this movie on ’ Apple label. On top of that, it’s adapted from Herman “Steppenwolf” Hesse’s seminal Zen novel “Siddhartha,” and is also an acid western that’s not named El Topo (another Beatles-entwined production). Did we mention it has an early song from Michael Kamen, who would go on to contribute to soundtracks for movies such as Brazil? This movie has a lot of promise to live up to as “The First Electric Western.” Does it deliver? Well… yeah, kinda/sorta, but it turns out a lot closer to a three-years-earlier Blazing Saddles than a one-year-later El Topo.

And speaking of deliveries, that’s how our protagonist, Zachariah (John Rubinstein), gets his gun, in a mail-order package eagerly ripped open in the dirt while a nearby band in the middle of the desert plays our opening number. While practicing his butterfingered quick-draw skills, he encounters a “wanted” poster for an outlaw gang called “the Crackers,” and just like that, he has his first quest. But his first stop is to his blacksmith friend Matthew (Don Johnson) to order some custom-made bullets. No sooner are they fooling around with the gun than they chance upon the Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish), a singing band of robbers. Zachariah gets into his first duel with a gruff bar patron, bolstering his nerve enough to join the Crackers, who handle music better than outlawing. They’re best put to use distracting a town with a concert while Zachariah and Matthew make away from the bank with big canvas sacks with dollar signs on them. Soon the two young guns will part ways with the Crackers, and other gangs, eventually splitting apart themselves, only to meet again for a showdown when Zachariah is out to pasture and Matthew is now top gun of the west.

The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet it could have taken itself even less seriously and been a whole lot more fun. The Firesign Theater distanced themselves from this project later, and you can almost see the gaping holes where their best jokes must have been cut out by some killjoy. You may find yourself thinking of funnier westerns as you watch this, wishing for somebody to punch a horse or take themselves hostage. The closest we get to weird is the corny cardboard set of Belle Starr’s cabaret, where a whole band serenades live in the bedroom while our hero gets his spurs polished. Fortunately, the tepid pace of the film doesn’t detract too much from the musical showcase, giving us moments that say “Holy crap, that’s Elvin Jones, the legendary jazz drummer!” and “Wait, was that Joe Walsh?” Zachariah has Heavy Metal syndrome: watch the movie once, but play the soundtrack until it wears out your iPod.

That being said, this film is to be accorded respect as the cultural museum piece it is. When Zachariah was in theaters, the musicals “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” were all the rage, the Vietnam War had yet to play out, and you could still get hassled for being a male with long hair in the wrong neighborhood. Musically, it captures the moment when country-and-western calved away from mainstream rock, doing so with such perfect timing that it’s a wonder the Flying Burrito Brothers or at least the Byrds didn’t manage to sneak onto the set somewhere. It’s often called the last gasp of the ’60s, on the cusp of ceding the old guard of comedy to the new ’70s era of Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, and Carol Burnett. There’s an attempt at symbolic meanings when the story gets serious; ponder that “Zachariah” is one of the final minor prophets of the Old Testament, while “Matthew” is the first New Testament disciple, and you catch a film seemingly aware of the turning page of history. It even hints at homosexual love amongst cowboys a long time before Brokeback Mountain raised the subject. Perhaps time has not been kind to this film; but then, The Monkees’ Head is three years older, and hasn’t lost a twinkle of its shine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An oddity then, certainly, but an enjoyable one.”– Anthony Nield, “The Digital Fix” (DVD)

CAPSULE: MOON CHILD (1989)

El Niño de la Luna

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Saldaña, Maribel Martin, Lisa Gerrard,

PLOT: A young orphan is brought to a special institute where the proprietors are attempting to create the conditions for the birth of a spawn of the dark underworld.

Still from Moon Child (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inspired by a novel by legendary occultist , Moon Child excels at mood, finding an intriguingly off-kilter vibe and riding it from beginning to end. But while the film offers situations and set pieces that may raise an eyebrow, the fantastical premises are addressed in a logical, rational fashion that keeps things too reasonable to be among the truly weird.

COMMENTS: A friend of mine once picked up a side job writing T-shirt slogans. At the height of the world’s obsession with Harry Potter, he made a tidy sum with the pithy observation, “Not all orphans are wizards.” Moon Child suggests an intriguing alternative: some orphans are the supernatural impetus for the birth of a world-destroying offspring of Satan.

This isn’t left up to interpretation. Young David (Saldaña) has been having strange and powerful dreams when a mysterious woman comes to test him. She represents an occult institution trying to engineer the perfect conditions and genetic bloodlines to trigger the birth of the spawn of the lord of the underworld. That goal dovetails nicely with the aims of the orphaned David, who has been trying to understand his place in the world. Perhaps the birth of a Moon Child is a win-win.

There’s an oddness and even a little humor in the cult’s methodical efforts to summon the devil. While supernatural powers are abundant at the resort-like outpost, the search for the right genetic donors is far less promising. The simple Georgina and the vision-challenged Edgar are finally selected. This culminates in the film’s unquestionable centerpiece, in which the couple consummates their expected Moon Child parentage on an altar beneath the bright rays of the moon. It’s part of Moon Child’s awkward charm that David is witness to this whole inappropriate display, but is interested exclusively in the implications for his own situation, oblivious to the very adult activities transpiring.

Much of the film hinges on the performance of two novice actors, who acquit themselves decently. Child actor Saldaña approaches everything with a wide-eyed, slack-jawed gape, but fortunately for him, the proceedings are sufficiently shocking to justify his one emotional register. For her part, Gerrard (half of the dream-pop duo Dead Can Dance, who also provide the atmospheric score) holds her own in a part that demands much of a first-time performer, including vomiting, a sandstorm, some slapstick during a lecture, and a very exposed sex scene. They do fine, and but are also aided by the film itself, with maintains an intriguing yet unsettling air that serves them well.

In fact, most of what Moon Child is, in the end, is atmosphere. As the setting moves to more exotic locales and as David gains more understanding and encounters new obstacles, the unifying force for the film remains a general feeling of unease. That pays off in a finale that is at once unexpected while fitting perfectly with the overall sense of dread. Not all orphans are wizards, it’s true. Some of them are so much more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Moon Child is about as strange as it probably sounds but it’s very well-made… The story, as odd as it may be, actually turns out to be reasonably straightforward, though the visuals dabble with surrealism at times, resulting in a wholly unique picture that at times feels like a less confrontational Jodorowsky film.” — Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (DVD)

CAPSULE: HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alex Sharp, , Tom Brooke,

PLOT: An aspiring teenage punk in 1970s London meets a cute girl; only catch is, she’s an alien.

Still from How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This light-hearted artistic fling between the offbeat talents of director John Cameron Mitchell and writer meets its quota of whimsical sweetness, but falls short in terms of weirdness.

COMMENTS: I was completely alone in the theater on a Monday night screening of How to Talk to Girls at Parties. When I bought my ticket the high school cashier on a summer job assumed I was asking to see Life of the Party (ouch!). Hopefully, the empty seats were just a sign of distributor A24’s compromising to commercial realities—better to suck it up and slot this curio’s release in the heat of summer up against Han Solo and the Avengers than to let it slink off to video unscreened—and not a sign of total lack of public interest in the project. While Girls is not a must-see cult hit, it’s not a waste of time, either; at the very least, it’s an oft-unconventional offering that could find a future Netflix audience of adventurous youngsters.

Girls is a period teen romantic comedy with the slightest tinge of punk and sci-fi flavor, more Earth Girls Are Easy (or even Splash) than Liquid Sky. Around the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), a trio of socially inept teenage punks stumble into the wrong party in Croydon while on the prowl for girls. While the fat kid and the self-appointed pick-up artist wander around scoping out the shapely bodies in tight latex unitards doing Cirque du Soleil acrobatic routines to whalesong electronica, the sweetest and most talented, Enn, stumbles upon a newly “manifested” alien Zan (Elle Fanning, who, God love her, is still seeking out the weirdest roles she can find rather than settling for a part as a minor X-Man character). After Enn explains the basics of his punk philosophy to the girl, Zan seeks, and is reluctantly granted, a dispensation to experience human life for 48 hours (“do more punk to me,” she croons to Enn). The remainder of the plot arc is easy to guess: the mismatched pair court, with the normal teenage social awkwardness amplified by an alien culture clash, while Zan’s “colony” (whom Enn and friends believe to be a cannibalistic California cult) pressure her to get her back into the fold. There’s some mild weirdness along the way: an out-of-place (and not-too-effective) psychedelic music video when Zan improvises a punk number onstage (“we must have been dosed,” Enn reasons); perverse alien sex practices better left undescribed; a conception scene with eggs like yellow party balloon and sperm that looks like a 3D model of a rhinovirus; Nicole Kidman as bitchy aging punk godmother Boadicea; and an underwhelming punks vs. aliens showdown that might have been huge if given a proper B-movie treatment. Overall, the movie has a good-natured, unthreatening-yet-rebellious spirit, and some eye candy in the costuming (each of the alien colonies sports its own sartorial theme). Still, the reveal of the ultimate nature of the alien cult(s) suggests many potentially more interesting stories than the John Hughes-y tale that actually unfolds here.

Multiple reviewers have complained that Girls is trying “too hard” to be a cult movie. This criticism comes from a perspective I’m not quite able to grasp; it’s probably a variation on the old “weird for weirdness’ sake” saw. I suppose the complaint is based on the premise that cult movies can only arise by happy accident when the director was actually trying to do something “more authentic”; this can be easily disproven by dozens of examples (including, I’d argue, one from this very same director). Whether you think it succeeds or not, Girls isn’t trying too hard; it’s just trying to be what it is, which just happens to be something a bit different from what critics and audiences expect.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s fully invested in exploring the weird, but not always the funny.”–Chris Hewitt, Empire (contemporaneous)