Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: MODESTY BLAISE (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Losey

FEATURING: , , Dirk Bogarde, Clive Revell, Harry Andrews, Rossella Falk, Michael Craig

PLOT:  Master thief Modesty Blaise and her associate, Willy Garvin, are enlisted by the British Government to protect a diamond shipment to a Middle Eastern sheik from a heist ring overseen by Master Criminal Gabriel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It certainly is strange, even for a comic book film, but in very much the spirit of its time.

COMMENTS: The current craze of adapting comic-book characters for the screen isn’t just a recent phenomenon. It’s only the consistent box-office success that’s relatively new. But, as Modesty Blaise proves, satisfying the preexisting fan base has ALWAYS been the fly in the ointment.

Purist fans of the British “Modesty Blaise” strip (which at the time was more known internationally than in the U.S., and still is) have long complained that the film doesn’t truly represent the source material. Not being familiar with the strip, I’ll leave it to those with more knowledge of the character to make those criticisms. What is evident, from what can be seen onscreen, is that director Losey, previously known for dramas such as The Servant and These Are the Damned, was going POP in the largest way possible.

The photography (by Jack Hilyard) and design (by Richard MacDonald and art director Jack Shampan) take precedence over anything else in the movie. In retrospect, that might not have been an altogether bad thing. The script—by Evan Jones, based on an original story and script by “Modesty” creator Peter O’Donnell and an uncredited pass by Harold Pinter(!)—appears to be a mess, though the flaw may be in its execution.

The 60’s Pop-art fascination with the comics had its basis in camp. Losey’s approach is no different, going for an arch, self-aware tone, most blatantly during a scene where Modesty, while searching a friend’s apartment, comes across her own comic strip. The movie’s Modesty also can change her wardrobe and hair color at the snap of a finger. Camp also explains the (horribly sung) duets she and Willie have at two points in the film, the last during the final confrontation with the bad guys. The camp isn’t quite as broad as what would soon be seen on television’s “Batman” series; Losey’s approach is more intellectual and narrow, as if channeling  directing a comic book spy film.

The main complaint about the film from purists is Monica Vitti, who in no way resembles the character as drawn. For the film, however, she’s more than perfect, bringing with her the ennui from her roles for Antonioni. Terence Stamp does a serviceable job in his role, basically a pretty boy-toy. The supporting cast (Clive Revell, Harry Andrews) is good, but it’s Dirk Bogarde who runs away with the film as the villainous but fey Gabriel, followed closely by Rossella Falk as his sadistic wife (and beard), Mrs. Fothergill.

Modesty Blaise is not an especially good a comic adaptation, or very weird. Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik both hew closer to their sources and go even more over the top. As an example of mid-60’s cinema Pop Art, however, it is good on its own terms.

DVD INFO: In 2002, Fox released a DVD that was fairly decent at the time—widescreen and anamorphic, although there were no extras. This past summer (2016) brought a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino-Lorber. It includes a commentary by film historian David Del Valle and director Armand Mastroianni which is entertaining—although Del Valle mistakenly credits camera operator Gerry Fisher as the DP. Also in the release are featurettes with first assistant director (and Joseph Losey’s son) Gavrik Losey; writer Evan Jones; and assistant art director Norman Doane. An image gallery and a trailer round out the special features.

CAPSULE: THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015)

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

Recommended

 

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau,

PLOT: God, who’s something of a jerk, lives in an inaccessible high-rise apartment in Brussels; rebelling from his authoritarian control, his 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel.

Still from The Brand New Testament (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the earlier days of this site, a movie like The Brand New Testament would easily have been shortlisted as a candidate. But with available slots on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made shrinking, the field grows more competitive by the week. In a way, with two entries already on the List, Jaco Van Dormael is a victim of his own success—and this high-concept comedy is not as weird as Toto the Hero or Mr. Nobody, although the Catherine Deneuve bestiality subplot nearly puts him over the top one more time.

COMMENTS: Since nothing can come from Nothing, God seems to be an ontological necessity. Yet, our fatally flawed world of starving children, male nipples, and Kanye singles argues against the existence of a perfect, benevolent Supreme Being. There is one way to reconcile this seeming paradox, however. What if God exists, but He’s not a pure and loving spirit: in fact, he’s not only imperfect, but a mildly sadistic bastard? Such a God would perfectly accord the necessity for a First Cause with our experience of life on this planet as frequently annoying, sometimes torturous, and genuinely tragic—besides explaining the whole “made in His image” thing.

Jaco van Dormael takes this whimsical philosophical proposition as the basis for his fantasy The Brand New Testament, a congenially blasphemous lark that winkingly rewrites Christian theology to tweak human nature. This God—played with wicked gusto by a perpetually peeved Benoît Poelvoorde in a ratty bathrobe—is a petty tyrant who delights not only in crashing planes but in setting up universal laws of annoyance, such as the cosmic rule that toast must always fall to the floor jam side down. So intolerable is his reign of terror that his eldest son, J.C., ran away from home to slum around Earth, embarrassing his father with his hippie antics. (“The kid said a lot of stuff on the spur of the moment,” God explains to a scandalized priest). J.C.’s sister, Ea, is now set to follow big bro’s example, climbing down to Earth via a magical dryer duct to escape her Father’s wrath after she hacks his computer and leaks the death dates of all of humanity, freeing them to live their remaining days to the fullest. The girl then sets about recruiting six new apostles, each of whom comes with their own mini-story, dramatized in segments like “The Gospel According to the Sex Maniac.”

The Brand New Testament is sprawling and ambitious, but despite a plot that wanders wide, it centers itself with a consistently off-center wit. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll laugh (“not at my right hand!” objects an angry God when Ea sits down to dinner). The scenario is so absurd, and the underlying message so humanistic, that only the most humorless Bible-thumper could take offense at Poelvoorde’s clearly farcical deity. Van Dormael slips surreal gags into the interstices of the already fantastic film: an ice-skating hand, a chanson-singing ghost fish, and Deneuve’s simian liaison. The ending is a feminist apocalypse where the patriarchal God is sent into exile and the universe rebooted with flowery skies, male pregnancies, and the return of the Cyclopes.

Belgian Van Dormael’s movies are similar to the solo work of , without a giant blockbuster hit like Amelie but with an oeuvre that, overall, has been both smarter and more consistent than that of the more famous Frenchman. With a small body of only five feature films full of philosophical ambition, wit, visual imagination, and thorough weirdness, he gets my vote for the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.

Despite having a role that’s no bigger than any of the other six apostles, Catherine Deneuve gets third billing. You can understand why. Her iconic presence dignifies the film, and her support for the project helped Van Dormael recover from the economic disaster of Mr. Nobody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal comedy whose endless visual imagination matches its conceptual wit.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HIGHWAY TO HELL (1990)

DIRECTED BY: Ate de Jong

FEATURING: Chad Lowe, Kristy Swanson, Patrick Bergin, C.J. Graham

PLOT: A supernatural cop abducts an eloping lover and takes her to a literal Hell; her beau must rescue her from her predicament.

Still from Highway to Hell (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a fun movie with a cute premise, but it stays well within the comfort zone of your average ’90s frat boy. It’s a good beer-chugger, but it never jumps the cliff into weirdo land, when it very easily could have. What a shame!

COMMENTS: Just to get it out of the way, the band AC/DC has nothing to do with this movie, nor does their warbling appear on the soundtrack. The title, however, is shown in the first shot after the credits, as the title of an arcade video game. Confused yet? So are our protagonists, Charlie and Rachael, who are paranoid about being tailed by a cop due to their clandestine wedding plans, but don’t have the presence of mind to remove the huge pizza delivery sign from the top of Charlie’s car, which marks them with a big red arrow. As they head to Vegas to get married, they stop off at the proverbial Last Chance gas station, where they get warned by the attendant that theirs is not the safest course. Guess who’s not heeding that warning?

With absolutely no foreplay, the couple find themselves detained by a “hellcop,” who looks exactly like you’d expect a hellcop to look. Rachael is now a hostage and Charlie tasked with rescuing her. With a plot no more complicated than a Super Mario Brothers’ game, the festivities are now underway. The gas station attendant turns out to be just the guy to prep Charlie for his quest into the “hellzone,” the capitol jurisdiction of Hell City and the place of Rachael’s eventual incarceration. Charlie drives through a portal to get to this alternate universe, which looks just like the rural Arizona desert, and then has all kinds of encounters and misadventures with the citizens, who act pretty nonchalant about living in hell. As he careens from Satanic ice cream scoopers to patchwork biker gangs, who variously help or hinder his quest, you get the idea that this road movie was conceived with the cool-factor riding shotgun, common sense taking a backseat, and logic banished to the trunk.

What the movie lacks in depth, it makes up in pace. We hardly have time to ponder the silliness of frying eggs on the sidewalk (hell, it’s kinda hot, you know), before we’re being preyed upon by a AAA tow truck driver: “anarchy armageddon annihilation.” Then it’s off to Hoffa’s bar, where the go-go dancers are so hot that they literally set your arm on fire when you try to grope them. You have to be charmed by the extra dose of corny imagination, even when it’s wasted on lame sight gags. It’s also such a product of 1991 that it has cameos by Gilbert Gottfried, Lita Ford, and more than one Stiller. The whole comes off as a Python-esque series of sketches, connected more tightly and produced on a much higher budget. This is one movie where people can tell you to go to Hell, and they’re doing you a favor because you were asking for directions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…doesn’t have the coin to fully create a towering vision of the underworld, but it offers enough strange encounters and environments to pass, giving the effort a nice lift when attention turns from Charlie’s panic to the land’s weirdo inhabitants.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Willard Huyck

FEATURING: Ed Gale, Lea Thompson, , , Liz Sagal, Holly Robinson, Chip Zien

PLOT: Loosely based on the Marvel comic book series, Howard is accidentally transported from his home planet of Duckworld to Cleveland, where he meets rock singer Beverly (Thompson); while trying to get  back home, his machinations inadvertently send an intergalactic monster to Ohio.

Still from Howard the Duck (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy, overblown and leadenly unfunny, but not really all that weird, except maybe for the “romance” between Howard and Beverly.

COMMENTS: Hollywood history is littered with legendary critical and box office disasters that really aren’t as bad as their reputations suggest, like Cleopatra, 1941, and Ishtar. On the other hand, there’s Howard the Duck, which truly is as godawful as everyone said it was back in 1986. The movie’s best moments come right at the beginning, when we see Howard on his home planet reading “Playduck” in front of a poster for “My Little Chickadee”. (The ornithological puns are as amusing as the picture ever gets). But once Howard lands on Earth, flirting with Thompson and befriending Robbins, the flick completely falls to pieces, culminating in a riot of stop-motion effects (courtesy of Phil Tippett) which are impressively elaborate, yet fake-looking and alarmingly grotesque. Howard himself resembles a Disney Audio-Animatronic possessed by an evil spirit.

Today, it would all be CGI, of course, but CGI couldn’t fix this script. The film was a $40 million debacle that almost ruined Thompson and Jones, who were coming off hits Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, respectively. Infamously produced by George Lucas, this was his biggest mistake until Jar Jar Binks. One odd thing about the film: the theme song, written by Thomas Dolby and George Clinton, is an ear-worm that adamantly refuses to get out of one’s head.

The 2016 “Special Edition” Blu-ray features some 40 minutes of extras imported from the 2009 DVD, along with 11 minutes of featurettes from 1986. These include two trailers from the original release, plus a “News Featurette” and three short documentaries about the film’s stunts, special effects and music. From 2016 comes a twenty-six minute look at the film’s pre-production and shooting, and a 13-minute short examining the movie’s post-production, release, disastrous reception and “legacy”. That legacy includes Howard’s post-credits appearance in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Howard the Duck was, believe it or not, the first Marvel comic book character to appear in a feature film. Don’t be surprised if Howard receives a big-budget “reboot” one of these days.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A hopeless mess… a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.”–Leonard Maltin (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS FEAST BOX SET

“The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast Box Set” (17-Disc Limited Edition – Blu-ray + DVD)

Sample DVD from The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast Box Set

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS (via the Arrow Video website):

  • “Fourteen of the Godfather of Gore’s finest attractions, newly restored from original and best surviving vault materials: A Taste of Blood, Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red, The Gore Gore Girls, The Gruesome Twosome, How to Make a Doll, Just for the Hell of It, Moonshine Mountain, Scum of the Earth, She-Devils on Wheels, Something Weird, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!, Two Thousand Maniacs!, The Wizard of Gore
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the features and extras on 7 Blu-ray and 7 DVD discs
  • Brand new introductions to the films by Lewis
  • Hours of extras including newly-produced interviews and featurettes, commentaries, short films and much more
  • Additional 2 bonus Blu-rays featuring 1.33:1 versions of Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Color Me Blood Red, A Taste of Blood and The Wizard of Gore [limited editions exclusive]
  • Additional bonus DVD: Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore documentary [limited editions exclusive]
  • 28-page H.G. Lewis annual stuffed full with Lewis-themed activities plus archive promotional material [limited editions exclusive]
  • Newly illustrated packaging by The Twins of Evil [Feast edition exclusive]”

COMMENTS: citing Herschell Gordon Lewis as an influence originally turned me on to the director. As a lifelong horror fan, it was Lewis’ horror titles I initially sought out. Blood Feast was my unforgettable introduction to the Godfather of Gore (a title the man earned)! They were not making films with graphic gore in 1963. The man was a pioneer.

Herschell Gordon Lewis has thirty-eight director credits listed on IMDB; I have seen twenty-five of these titles. Nudist camps, bikers, juvenile delinquents, rednecks, psychotic artists, mad magicians, cuckoo caterers: Lewis’ resume is a colorful one. Despite the “Godfather of Gore” moniker, only eleven of his thirty-eight films are horrors. This Arrow box set focuses on his horror films; nine of the fourteen titles are from the genre. Given the opportunity to put together my own H.G. Lewis box set I would have chosen every one of these titles with the exception of How to Make a Doll (I would have included Alley Tramp instead).

I own Something Weird Video copies of some of these titles, including a couple of their downloads. All are sketchy quality. Screenshot comparisons of the DVDs for Wizard of Gore, Blood Feast and This Stuff Will Kill Ya show that in all cases the Arrow Video discs had crisper images. This was particularly noticeable in facial features. The other big difference was in the color. The color differences on Continue reading CAPSULE: THE HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS FEAST BOX SET

CAPSULE: GIRL ASLEEP (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rosemary Myers

FEATURING: , Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Imogen Archer, Eamon Farren, Maiah Stewardson

PLOT: A socially awkward girl falls asleep at her disastrous and unwanted 15th birthday party and enters a fantasy world.

Still from Girl Asleep (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Content to dawdle pleasantly through a merely quirky opening, Girl Asleep doesn’t make a mad dash for the weird until its midpoint. It’s an eccentric and worthy entry in the feminine coming-of-age subgenre, but not strange enough for the List.

COMMENTS: Girl Asleep is like what might result if you put Labyrinth, Napoleon Dynamite, and a random movie in a blender. Other critics have been quick to pick up on the last two influences, but not so much on the first one, which is crucial to us. Girl takes a radical turn at the midpoint, when Greta enters a blatantly allegorical dream world, which takes it in a direction Anderson probably would never have gone. ( might have, but he would not have kept it so sweet).

But let’s back up a bit. Girl starts off simply enough, with soon-to-be 15-year old Greta at a new school on the first day. (The fact that “new school: first day” is written on a basketball being thrown up in the air is our tip-off that this film will have a spry and offbeat sense of humor—look out for objects with informational titles spread throughout  the film). Cue Elliot, the movie’s indefatigably upbeat nerd, who’s the first to strike up a friendship with the newcomer. Second to approach her are Jade, Sapphire and Amber, the school’s bitchy-cool girls, who “take a shine” to her like a team of Australian Heathers. Dad wears short-shorts and Mom wears denim pantsuits—this is the Seventies, after all, as the home’s gold-and-avocado color scheme informs us. Older sis is aloof, but her smooth-talking boyfriend’s plunging neckline and aquamarine party van stir instincts inside of Greta. After a string of ordinary teenage humiliations, things get really embarrassing when Mom plans a fifteenth birthday bash for the wallflower so she can meet the neighbors in the most awkward way possible. A magical realist album cover from chain-smoking heart-throb Benoit Tremet and spontaneous disco numbers keep a weirder-than-average vibe going through the first forty minutes.

Fleeing to her bedroom mid-party, an electric shock from a music box sends Greta into a dark Gothic woods to retrieve her symbolic innocence from a bird puppet and a mucousy swamp thing with a porn stache. It never gets uncomfortably weird, but she sees lots of strange sights in the woods, derangements that persist when she returns to her party. The easy-to-grasp analogies between Greta’s real life and her dream world, strengthened by the fact that the same actors portray characters in the fantasy, will remind experienced travelers of familiar psychic terrains (from Mirrormask and the aforementioned Labyrinth). The simplified sub-Freudian symbolism is appropriate for the target age group, just frightening enough to hint at the challenges of adulthood without tossing Greta into the frightening orgies of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The plot’s zigs and offbeat jokes keep us on our toes and, despite the mild absurdism, the kids are as likable, flawed and realistic as any John Hughes cast. Overall, it’s a fun movie that will serve as a fine escalation of the possibilities of fantastic cinema for adolescents, while the quirky setting amuses adults.

Matthew Whittet, who also plays the dad, adapted Girl Asleep from his own play. Rosemary Myers directs. Although Whittet has an established career as an actor (appearing in Moulin Rogue! and The Great Gatsby), this is his first published screenplay. Girl is the first credit of any kind for Myers. Both have promising futures, as do Bethany Whitmore and Harrison Feldman, the film’s two young leads.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like the love child of Jane Campion and Guy Maddin, an otherworldly quinceañera that celebrates female rites of passage and the hallucinatory power of film.”–Serena Donadoni, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DARLING (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Mickey Keating

FEATURING: , Brian Morvant

PLOT: A young woman hired to house-sit in the oldest residence in Manhattan discovers evidence of an occult history, and her grip on reality immediately begins to unravel.

Still from Darling (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Darling effectively captures a violent descent into madness, with filmic techniques that heighten the lead character’s insanity. But there’s not much that’s actively unusual about it, and the film’s most notable plot elements hearken back to earlier, superior movies.

COMMENTS: One person, alone. Only the sights and sounds as company. At what point does detachment make way for dementia? When does sanity start to break down? The idea of the lone individual doing battle with both oppressive solitude and personal demons is a hallmark of storytelling, whether in literature (Robinson Crusoe, The Shining), on the small screen (Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent,” The Twilight Zone pilot “Where Is Everybody?”), and certainly in the movies (Cast Away, 127 Hours, Buried). So the near-solo effort that is Lauren Ashley Carter’s performance has a healthy precedent. But in this particular instance, one film looms over Darling like a mighty monolith: Repulsion. That’s bad news for Darling, because other than a reduction in the cast and an increase in the level of hinted-at gore, the new film is barely a gloss on its predecessor.

The film’s entire modus operandi is to minimize any of the elements that would serve to explain, justify, or add any depth to our heroine’s plight. She has no name (the credits offer “Darling,” but it still sounds more like Sean Young’s term of irritated affection). We have no sense of her past or history, until a very late reveal. Her wardrobe seems to consist of two dresses and a nightgown (with a soupçon of gratuitous nudity for good measure). She has virtually no interaction with others, save for one character who establishes the premise and another to serve as a target for her unleashed rage. With no clear wants or needs, nothing that marks her as an individual, your guess as to what drives her descent into madness is as good as anyone else’s; she’s a tabula rasa protagonist. Even the elegant black-and-white photography saps any color from Darling’s existence.

With that void at the center, all that’s left is the scare factor. We know that shock value is the movie’s raison d’etre right from the title card, which abruptly jumps from gentle piano music to a horror-saturated, Herrmann-esque stabbing cue that slams into the film like a speeding truck. From this point forward, Darling (and, accordingly, the audience) is assaulted by shock jump cuts, sudden surprising noises, and disturbing images. And to be fair, they work just about every time. But they’re a reminder of Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation of the difference between the shock of a bomb going off versus the suspense of waiting on that bomb. There’s no suspense in Darling. The main character’s fate is clear from the outset, and we’re just waiting for it to arrive.

The screenplay plays lip service to the idea of an explanation. A crumb of backstory about past occurrences in the house, a piece of jewelry in a blasphemous setting, and most notoriously a hint of sexual assault in our heroine’s past: these are the clues we have to help us answer the question of whether Darling is driven mad by her surroundings or brings the crazy with her. Carter throws herself into the role, walking the line between victim and aggressor, but ultimately, we can’t know what motivates her because the film doesn’t care. The scares are all that matters. It’s not so much a story as it is a haunted house.

Mickey Keating is a gifted filmmaker. He likes to use Kubrick framing, and plays with long takes, slow pans, and implied violence as much as explicit. He spices things up with jump cuts, inserts, blackouts, and every sound trick in the book. He even manages to extract shock value from moments that should be free of surprise, such as when a policeman inspects a bag whose contents are well-known to us. But he happens to be working with Keating the screenwriter, who has crafted a scare-delivery system rather than a story. That’s why the memory of Repulsion proves so damaging to any assessment of Darling: when you can get the same tale told with greater depth, adding more “gotcha” moments feels like a poor trade-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“More experimental than mainstream horror viewers will be expecting, ‘Darling’ works best as an alluring, hallucinogenic mood piece that makes its way under the skin. It feels classy even when blood is being shed in a monochromatic frame.”–Jeremy Kibler, The Artful Critic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BIRDS OF NEPTUNE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Richter

FEATURING: Britt Harris, Molly Elizabeth Parker, Kurt Conroyd, Christian Blair

PLOT: Two sisters in Portland who have fallen into a pattern of stagnation and poor choices find their complacency upended when a manipulative man comes into their lives.

Still from Birds of Neptune (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the explanation for how the sisters got that way is a little on the peculiar side, the film itself plays it straight as an examination of two people who can’t move forward but refuse to look back until compelled to by an outside force.

COMMENTS: Fans of the satirical comedy show “Portlandia” have come to know the city as a place populated by extreme quirkiness and a measured indifference to social norms. Birds of Neptune, filmed in the city and featuring a local cast, plays it deadly serious, but it actually reinforces that same perception to outsiders about how life is lived in Stumptown.

Our leads absolutely play into the stereotype. Rachel is an experimental musician who is putting off both going to college and getting an abortion. (Kevin O’Connor and Erik Blood share credit for the score, which seems to include Rachel’s intriguing noodlings on the guitar). Big sister Mona, on the other hand, supports them both through her job as an exotic dancer with a preference for the avant-garde, including one routine in which she dresses like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Mona is harsh in assessing Rachel’s prospects, but also seems to be passive-aggressively standing in her way.

At the strip club Mona picks up Zach, a hipster-bearded psychology major with a penchant for nosing into the sisters’ business. He’s the one who discovers their dark secret—they were brought up in a Rajneesh-style cult laced with elements of Scientology, and still go through some of the motions of their unusual faith. This twist is probably the oddest element of the film, but there’s novelty in the fact that the film doesn’t condemn the girls for their mystical beliefs. In fact, their antagonist’s behavior manages to make a virtue of their ongoing commitment to a spiritual life that otherwise seems outwardly ridiculous and even dangerous.

We never learn precisely what Zach’s damage is, but he quickly makes it his mission to turn Mona against her sister, and then against her own past. This past includes an abandoned bathroom that is obviously the site of yet another family tragedy. Zach also seems determined to bed Rachel and destroy her budding friendship with a smitten 15-year old named Thor. (The film hangs a lampshade on that name at a critical moment in the film). In short, he’s a jerk. We get traces of this early on, as he snoops through the sisters’ house, but subtext becomes explicit as he purposely manipulates the two women, weakening the one while inadvertently spurring the other to take more definitive action.

In the final act, the film takes a very unexpected left turn into the realm of revenge thriller. It’s a curious choice from director Richter and co-screenwriter Flavia Rocha. If it’s intended to show how Rachel makes the crucial decision to move ahead with her life, that choice is already made. And if it’s meant to pull Mona out of her spiral into depression, it overlooks the fact that she is left alone at film’s end, now without direction herself. In any event, the characters are already developing steadily without the need for a sudden burst of violence to prod them along. It’s an illogical twist, which is weird, in a way.

Birds of Neptune is somewhat portentous, with lengthy shots of birds on branches and passing clouds serving as act breaks, and heavy dialogue scenes in which characters poke at each other in order to figure out each other’s “deal.” Ultimately, Birds of Neptune is a lot like its setting: laid-back, a little quirky, and getting where it wants to go at its own pace.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While Birds Of Neptune may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.”–Ben Umstead, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MURDER UNINCORPORATED [DAI NIPPON KOROSHI-YA-DEN] (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Haruyasu Nogushi

FEATURING: , Kon Ômura, Hiroshi Hijikata, Bontarô Taira

PLOT: A cartel of crime bosses, their lives threatened by the infamous Joe of Spades, hires a collective of assassins of dubious skill to protect them and to root out their enemy.

Still from Murder Unicorporated (1965)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even by slapstick standards, the collection of oddballs assembled here is pretty strange, and a subplot involving the only character in the film playing it straight adds a surprising layer of seriousness to a story that is almost entirely absurd. But the overall goal is sustained silliness, rather than true head-scratching weirdness, and the final product wouldn’t be out of place alongside more recent genre-twisting comedies featuring Adam Sandler or his cohorts.

COMMENTS: Viewers know what they’re getting from Murder Unincorporated in the first 20 seconds: a man looks directly at us and warns us that if we do not laugh, he will shoot us. So we have ourselves a comedy, albeit one with the perpetual threat of violence. For whatever else this film tries to accomplish, this much is an unqualified success.

In a city so rife with illegal activity that the top crime bosses divide their efforts by specific illicit enterprises, even crime bosses must turn to the titular corporation when their lives are threatened by a vengeful assassin. The response is a motley collection of aspiring hired guns, including a lovesick poet bearing a volume of Heinrich Heine verse, a baseball fanatic who refuses to work while the Yomiuri Giants are playing, a chef who is terrified to slice fish, and even a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking dwarf who professes to be the grandson of Al Capone. But first and foremost is a wannabe Jerry Lewis armed with an abacus, who is escaping an apprenticeship where his boss yanks hairs out of his head. In short, they’re all incompetent and certifiably crazy.

And yet the absurdity can hardly be blamed entirely on these goofballs. The whole town is quite insane. A rival gang hires its own killers to take out the rented assassins, including a pair of brothers who dress like the protagonists of “Spy vs. Spy” and a chiseled European identified only as “006…007’s boss.” Even the killings themselves are aggressively wacky: when one of the crime bosses is gunned down, he and his bodyguards roll around like acrobats before finally expiring. With determined madness, undercranked chase scenes, and a relentlessly sunny disposition, Murder Unincorporated plays like a -helmed episode of “The Benny Hill Show.”

All this absurdity is punctuated by the constant presence of guns. They can be found everywhere—embedded in a briefcase, a baseball bat, a book of poetry—and are used for every purpose, from dialing telephones to changing TV channels. It’s tempting to view the film as a satirical commentary on violence, but given the way they are so integral to the movie’s brand of comedy, it’s far more appropriate to think of guns as an updated version of vaudevillian cream pies, thrown in a flurry and landing where they may.

There is one exception to all of this nonsense. Early on, the Jerry Lewis-analogue meets up with a chill motorcyclist who quickly establishes himself as the only normal person in the film. Even a viewer unfamiliar with leading man Joe Shishido will be completely unspoiled by the revelation that this is Joe of Spades. He will slowly unveil his true identity and abilities, even as the gang of peculiar assassins obliviously pursues him.

Shishido seems flown in from another movie, and in a way, he is. Murder Unincorporated is a product of the Nikkatsu studio, which exploited its onscreen talent by showcasing it in films where directors and writers were given a freer reign to push genre boundaries. (The film is showcased Arrow Films’ “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” DVD/Blu-Ray set alongside two of the studio’s other films, Tokyo Mighty Guy and Danger Paws, that are offbeat or unusual in their own way, although not reaching the heights of zaniness seen here.) In this case, the studio seems to have tried to leaven the craziness with the cool violence of a proven star who just happened to be under contract. It doesn’t not work, but the two styles never fully gel.

After the final showdown, the movie pulls out one more trick and goes all meta on us; someone observes, “The police are coming for the first time in this movie.” It’s a funny line, and the film as a whole is fairly amusing; when you throw so many jokes at the screen, a decent number are bound to land. But after a while, the frantic reach for laughs is equal parts entertaining and exhausting. There’s not much like Murder Unincorporated, which turns out to be kind of a relief.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a completely insane black comedy with a ridiculous body count that plays like a drug-addled mash up of The Assassination Bureau, Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine… More like a string of bizarre comedy sketches than a normal narrative… but it’s a fascinating and very entertaining comedy if you’re in the right frame of mind.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD box set)

CAPSULE: GAS-S-S-S (1970)

AKA Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bob Corff, Elaine Giftos, , Cindy Williams, , (as Tally Coppola)

PLOT: After an experimental gas kills everyone over the age of twenty five, young lovers make their way across the desert looking for a hippie Shangri-La in New Mexico.

Still from Gas-s-s-s (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: More zany than strange, Gas-s-s-s lacks bite as satire and doesn’t go far enough with its crazy to earn a place among the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Unlike monster movies, which could be churned out according to a reliable formula, comedy was always an iffy proposition for Roger Corman. When he had a dark, focused script like Little Shop of Horrors, he could produce a classic; but when the screenplay indulged in budget wackiness, as with Creature from the Haunted Sea, the results ranged from tedious to tolerable. Gas-s-s-s falls into the latter category; it’s not actually very funny, but it moves so fast and ranges so wide that it keeps your attention despite the fact that none of the individual gags land.

An appealing young cast (without the usual Corman regulars) helps. It’s not a star-making turn for either, but Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos do well enough as the central couple, he a puckish hippie and she the liberated love child. In his first major speaking role, Ben Vereen is a lot of fun as an ex-Black Panther, and future “Shirley” Cindy Williams (also in her first big part) wrings most of the film’s legitimate giggles from her character, a perpetually pregnant ingenue obsessed with 1960s rock and roll. Working with the legendary Corman, even in a bad picture, was a feather in any young actor’s cap, and Gas-s-s-s is cool credit for Talia Shire and future cult icon Bud Cort, even though both of their characters are underdeveloped and generic. Together, this sextet makes its way across a post-adult landscape where the marauders are organized as football teams (complete with rape-and-pillage pep rallies) and the Hell’s Angels have civilized themselves and taken over an abandoned country club. also rides around on a motorcycle dispensing advice and commentary. The jokes—stuff like calling out the names of cowboy actors instead of firing bullets during a shootout— are too goofy to be called absurdist; the film is almost childlike, as if the survivors are just kids pretending that the world has ended one afternoon. The result is like what might have happened if Mel Brooks had taken the script for The Bed Sitting Room, removed the dark nuclear gags, and filmed the results cheaply and quickly on an off day. I’ll resist the temptation to say Gas-s-s-s stinks; it’s a breezy wisp of a satire.

Gas-s-s-s was the last film in Roger Corman’s groovy “psychedelic” period, which began with Wild Angels and peaked with The Trip. It was also Corman’s final picture for American International Studios; he didn’t have final cut and was upset at the way the picture was edited, including the decision to cut certain scenes involving his God, who spoke with a stereotypical Jewish accent. Corman formed New World Pictures soon after and rarely directed again, serving almost exclusively as producer. Gas-s-s-s was paired on DVD in separate double feature sets with either Corman’s The Trip or the thematically similar Wild in the Streets. In October 2016 Olive released it as a standalone Blu-ray with no special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not a good pic by any means (in fact it’s a terrible plotless ramble of an idiotic film), but it’s probably worth a look for certain curious viewers because it’s so raw, audacious, bizarre and diverting.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (DVD)