Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: BRAINIAC [El barón del terror] (1962)

DIRECTED BY:  Chano Urueta

FEATURING: Abel Salazar

PLOT: A smirking sorcerer is burnt alive by the Spanish Inquisition, only to return three hundred years later as a shapeshifting brain-eater to wreak his vengeance on the descendants of those who condemned him.

Still from Brainiac (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTBrainiac‘s appeal, weird or otherwise, lies almost entirely in its delirious hairy monster with its two-foot, forked, brain-sucking tongue. The beast looks like a mix between a middle-schooler’s papier-mâché art project and a legitimate nightmare. The rest of the movie is a different kind of nightmare.

COMMENTSBrainiac‘s story of vengeance from beyond the grave is a sloppy mess that exists only to showcase its unforgettable monster. And what a freak that Brianiac is! With its beaklike nose, sharp protruding ears, dual fangs, lobster-claw hands and two foot tongue, its head is hung with more phallic symbols per square inch than any other Mexican monster of its era. To add to its brutish masculine menace, the head is oversized, hairier than Dr. Hyde, and its temples and cheeks bulge and pulse when it sees itself faced with a helpless female victim. The Brainiac’s appearance (not to mention his behavior) is simultaneously goofy and frightening; the mask is so obvious and the facial features so exaggerated that the whole package seems to have been shipped to us equally from the land of parody and the land of nightmare. It’s an image that’s not easily forgotten, and one that’s kept El barón del terror in circulation on TV and video for over forty years, while thousands and thousands of more competent productions have been forgotten. When the monster’s not on screen, bad movie fans can entertain themselves by picking apart the plot’s inconsistencies—I find it especially odd that the Inquisitors who sentenced the Baron to death, presumably all celibate clergymen, each ended up with exactly one descendant three hundred years later. When in human form, the Baron occasionally sneaks off for a snack of brains eaten with a spoon out of a silver chalice. Also keep an eye out for the worst depiction of a comet ever put on the screen. In terms of riotous dialogue and incidents, however, Brainiac is no Plan 9 from Outer Space, and anyone who’s not a connoisseur of crap will find it slow going whenever the monster’s not on screen.

Brainiac was one of the Mexican fantasy movies imported into this country by the legendary K. Gordon Murray, dubbed into English and then sold to kiddie matinees or packaged for late-night TV showings in the U.S.  Murray also was responsible for bringing Mexican wrestling superhero movies (e.g. Santo) and several demented fairy tales (Santa Claus, Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters) north of the border.  David Silva, who plays a police detective, later appeared in El Topo as the Colonel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre. Nutty. Goofy. Ridiculous. Hilarious. The Brainiac! Even for Mexihorror this is one weird, way-out flick.”–Eccentric Cinema

CAPSULE: EX DRUMMER (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Koen Mortier

FEATURING: Dries Van Hegen, Norman Baert, Gunter Lamoot, Sam Louwyck

PLOT: A writer agrees to become the drummer for a band formed by trio of handicapped lowlifes to win a Belgian battle of the bands; he ends up manipulating them into destruction.Still from Ex Drummer (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With it’s inverted skinhead and brief tour of a ravaged vagina, Ex Drummer is definitely weird; the problem is, it’s so unpleasant, pretentious, tedious and nihilistic that the oppressive atmosphere makes the viewer desperate to escape the movie.

COMMENTS: There are many possible interpretations of Ex Drummer—for one, the script at times implies it is a vague meditation on “personal sadness”—but the most honest explanation of what the film is comes from writer Dries’ confession when he agrees to join “The Feminists” as their celebrity drummer: “I want to step outside my happy world. Descend into the depths of stupidity, ugliness, obtuseness, unfaithfulness… Latch onto the life of losers, but without belonging to that world and in the knowledge that I can always return to my own world.” In other words, it’s moral tourism among the disadvantaged: the underclasses do the craziest things, like constantly rape each other and neglect their children until the tykes chomp down on excrement from hunger. Who wouldn’t want to enter such a world for ninety minutes, aside from most film-goers? Besides the drummer, the blackguard band’s principals are an abusive deaf guitarist, a gay rhythm guitarist with a stiff arm from an accident incurred when he was caught masturbating as a teen, and a misogynist skinhead singer with a lisp. Upper-class, educated Dries’ turns out to be the worst scoundrel of all, callously manipulating and scripting these mooncalves into cruel ends for his own amusement. True, the film can be very weird (gravity works backwards in the skinhead’s flat, where toothpaste and blood flow towards the roof), but the weirdness sits uneasily: the director seems to view unreality as just another form of ugliness to be savored. As a black comedy, more comedy and less black would have been greatly appreciated. First time feature director Mortier has a few interesting ideas and shots, such as an extended early sequence where the film unspools in reverse as the band bicycles backwards from Dries’ flat into their own backstories. But the pity is that the main memories we take home from Ex Drummer aren’t these few moments of inspiration; rather, there’s an impression that most of the movie was full of endlessly padded scenes of the band squabbling among itself or fighting other bands or organizers, hurling epithets and fists whenever anyone perceives the slightest slight to their egos. Since there are no characters anywhere in the film to root for, we have no reason to care who wins the battle of the bands. After that contest’s decided, there’s really nothing left for the movie to accomplish, but it presses on for another distasteful fifteen minutes, because having nothing to say or do has never stopped it before. Ex Drummer‘s attempts to forge nihilistic poetry from the lives of pariahs has gained it critical comparisons to Trainspotting; these are off, because Danny Boyle’s movie was about real people, and never indulged in such undisguised contempt for its characters. A more apt comparison is that Ex Drummer is a Belgian Gummo, with Eurotrash substituting for poor white trash, and even more shameless and self-aware gawking at the freaky antics of the disadvantaged.

On the plus side, the aggressive punk/metal soundtrack (with a few mellower indie rock numbers strategically inserted for a much needed change of pace) is actually pretty good, and likely the real reason for the film’s cult following. If you’re a fan of this type of music you’ll probably be much more forgiving of this movie, which could at times be described as an extended, uncensored, and rather pretentious music video.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bizarre, horribly violent and frequently brilliant black comedy from Belgium: a melange of Irrevérsible, Clockwork Orange, Man Bites Dog and This Is Spinal Tap.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Denny.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)

AKA Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

FEATURING: Alan Cox, Nicholas Rowe, Sophie Ward

PLOT: Young Watson meets prodigy schoolboy Sherlock at a British boarding school; together with Holmes’ girlfriend, they solve a mysterious rash of bizarre murders plaguing London.

Still from Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Noteworthy for some dark and intense hallucinatory scenes, but basically it’s a rollicking Spielberg-produced action-adventure a la the Indiana Jones series.

COMMENTS: Directed by Barry Levinson but bearing executive producer Steven Spielberg’s stamp all over it (much like “Tobe Hooper” ‘s 1982 Poltergeist), Young Sherlock Holmes was an unexpected box office flop in 1985, but has since garnered a minor cult film reputation among nostalgic post-boomers. There are a few exhibitions of Holmesian deduction in the early reels to establish the prodigal intelligence of the adolescent Holmes, but the main mystery, involving an ancient Egyptian cult in Victorian London, isn’t quite up to Arthur Conan Doyle’s intricate standards. The reason to watch it is for the special effects in the fanciful hallucination sequences, which hold up excellently today, and can still be intense and scary for younger viewers. The most memorable of these is a stained-glass knight who jumps down of a cathedral wall and menaces a cleric; a more whimsical example is the sinister cupcakes that menace chubby young Watson in a graveyard. Leaving aside the objection that shooting your victims full of hallucinogenic drugs and hoping that they commit suicide while battling phantasms in their delirium isn’t the most fail-proof of techniques for a professional assassin to employ, these scenes are mildly weird and enjoyable enough in themselves to make this flick worth catching for weirdophiles. The hallucinations cease in the second half, as the film becomes more concerned with solving the mystery and restoring the status quo; inevitably Holmes, the apex of rationality, is able to defeat the dark occult specters from the ancient unconscious and reestablish the Age of Enlightenment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…things take a turn towards the predictable thanks to Chris Columbus’s script ignoring all the things that made the duo so dynamic and instead cobbling together some nonsense about Eastern cults and hallucinogenic drugs that more readily recalls the work of Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu) than Conan Doyle.”–Richard Luck, Channel 4 Film

CAPSULE: 9 (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Shane Acker

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT:  Nine robotic ragdolls fight killer machines in a post-human, post-apocalyptic world.

Still from 9 (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: 9 is a visually thrilling movie set in a unique, humanless universe; with a more careful and detailed exploration of that world, the flick could have struck a mildly weird chord.  As it is, the movie is mostly concerned with looking gorgeous (which it does) and providing the kiddies with rambunctious action sequences than it is in digging deep into the mysteries of its fascinating milieu.

COMMENTS:  People constantly, and rightfully, complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality in plots; by the time a screenwriter’s fresh idea makes its way through the suit mill, strong and unique flavors have been ground out of it, replaced with formula salt. Sloppy, rote plotting, climaxing in a well-worn and obvious moral, is so omnipresent in Hollywood product that it seldom raises a critical eyebrow. That is, until something as visually inventive as 9 appears on the screen, when suddenly the relative poverty of imagination of the typical adventure script is thrown into stark relief. 9 is set in a brilliantly realized earth-tone post-apocalypse dominated by bombed-out buildings littered with ruined bric-a-brack. The animation is obviously influenced by Tim Burton disciple Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), but in its brooding darkness and danger it brings to mind a more fluid and rational-minded version of or the Brothers Quay. Flashbacks of the man vs. machine war that wiped out humanity look like a 1940s propaganda film attacked by H.G. Wells’ Martians (they’re even in glorious black and white).

Such a visually inventive world promises, and deserves, to be the backdrop for an equally imaginative story, and here is where 9 falls apart. The characters (known only by number) are quickly and archetypically sketched, but that’s not a major problem; it’s satisfying enough to know that 1 is a fatally conservative leader, 6 is a visionary artist, 7 is a brash warrior, and so on down the line. The major problem is that there is little sense to the burlap doll’s very existence; they fight nightmarish robotic cats and an all-seeing globe which is capable (for some reason) of sucking out their little souls, but it seems like they should be solving the riddle of their existence. They do so, but when they get the answer, it’s a major letdown. The biggest plot problem isn’t that the Scientist created both the nine ragdolls and the beast that dogs them; it’s that, in an epic fit of absentmindedness, he imbued the same gizmo with the power both to activate the apocalypse and provide the last hope of humanity. It’s a bizarre and confusing plan (and for once, I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it’s based on some awfully hokey metaphysics that invokes the idea that if you create a device that shoots souls into the sky, it will eventually rain life-giving amoebas. The truth is, the nine exist in a script that needs menacing robots for them to fight with broken pocketknife blades as big as broadswords; therefore, these evil machines exist, and for no other convincing reason. The script isn’t interested in fleshing out this world or resolving these paradoxes, but only in getting us to the next action sequence or comforting cliche as quickly as possible. In the end, that leaves us with a film that, perhaps unfairly, disappoints us, because it has so much imaginative potential. We may be more forgiving towards Hollywood fare that aims no higher than to provide us with eighty minutes of eye candy and an injection of vicarious adrenaline, and squarely hits its mark.

Acker’s film is an Internet success story. Birthed as an eleven minute short film, 9 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2005, but it was YouTube viewings that created the huge advance buzz for the feature version. The short contained no dialogue—only electronica, metallic battle sounds, and weird ambient noise—and also reveals none of the unsatisfactory backstory. It was far more mysterious, and a more impressive artistic achievement. When Tim Burton decided to adopt the film and serve as producer (by slapping his ticket-selling name on it), the project’s Hollywood credibility went through the roof—and the story was ground into the Hollywood scriptwriting gears.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the strangest animated feature to appear since Coraline… [it has] the feeling of a perversely fascinating ballet mécanique—a movie that literally expends with humans in the way that Hollywood blockbusters have been figuratively doing for years.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Victor Fleming (credited), King Vidor, Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited)

FEATURING: Judy Garland, , Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley

PLOT:  A cyclone carries a Kansas girl (and her little dog, too) to a magical land over the rainbow.

Still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In creating a list of the 366 best weird movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz presents a huge challenge.  After all, this Technicolor extravaganza contains such trippy imagery as a bizarre cyclone that hurls snatches of a young girl’s fears past her spinning window; a land of doll-like little people threatened by a witch; talking apple trees; a giant floating green head appearing and disappearing before a curtain of flame; knife-nosed, green-faced Cossack guards; and of course, flying monkeys—never underestimate the weirdness of flying monkeys.  These should be the building blocks of a stunningly psychedelic pic, but if this magical movie only seems fantastic, never weird, it’s because the entire adventure feels so safe.  The musical numbers, the comedy, and the deliciously stagey sets serve to remind all but the very youngest children that we’re in an artificial, sheltered environment, and that no harm can ever come to Dorothy.  We’re invited to sit back and soak in the spectacle, not to experience it directly.

COMMENTS: Most reviews of The Wizard of Oz could be distilled down to two words: “me too.”  Are you a viewer who loves the movie?  Me, too.  You admire the immaculate casting and performances?  The unforgettable music?  The clever nonsense wordplay of Continue reading CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

CAPSULE: LIFEFORCE (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Tobe Hooper

FEATURING: Mathilda May, Steve Railsback, Peter Firth

PLOT: A space shuttle investigating Halley’s comet discovers a spaceship containing three suspended, nude human bodies; returned to Earth, the bodies come alive and begin vampirically sucking the life force out of humans.

Still from Lifeforce (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTLifeforce is a grandly cheesy and frequently nonsensical mishmash of B-movie cliches, and a great movie to watch with a six-pack on hand. Although it’s loony, offbeat and fun, it’s ultimately too lightweight and not quite systematically deranged enough to rank as one of the greatest weird movies of all time.

COMMENTSLifeforce starts out as an Alien ripoff, and ends up as a Quatermass and the Pit ripoff; in between, it’s a Dracula ripoff, only with a naked woman wandering around using her electric French kiss to turn half of London into dessicated scarecrows who reanimate as zombie vampires after two hours pass. Yes, I said naked woman: French model Mathilda May’s totally nude performance is the thing everyone remembers about the film, and quite obviously the main source of the movie’s unending popularity. The woman is stunning; her body is such a perfect Platonic embodiment of the feminine form that, like a Greek statue, it transcends the erotic and becomes an object of pure aesthetic reverence. The flick would still be worthwhile without Mathilda, but her nude performance adds that certain something that lodges the movie in the cinematic consciousness. Add in early Industrial Light and Magic style special effects, with electric blue rays shooting everywhere in sight during the vampire zombie apocalypse as stolen human souls merge together and climb into a great glowing column shooting up to the alien mothership, and you have a film that’s visually unforgettable. When the beautifully overwrought pyrotechnics of the film are matched to the ludicrous story, a certain magical b-movie alchemy occurs. Lifeforce‘s script seems to be being made up as the film progresses, with the stunned actors getting their lines a few seconds before shooting (the movie is stuffed with deadpan lines like “a naked girl is not going to get out of this complex,” “now she has clothes,” and “in a sense, we’re all vampires”). Soon after the aliens have been returned to Earth and start sucking the life force from humans, we learn that astronaut Steve Railsback has a convenient psychic link with Mathilda May because she gave him part of her life force when she electro-kissed him, which allows him under hypnosis to follow her about as she jumps from body to body infecting more Englishmen and -women with the rapidly spreading plague, only now she needs her life force back so she visits Steve in erotic dreams and tries to steal it, but then she goes to Westminster Abbey and starts acting as a conduit for all the pilfered human souls her sub-vampires are stealing and draws Steve to her and… well, the exact mechanics of this plot to take over Earth from beyond the stars are iffy (had the script for Lifeforce been available in 1959,  might have considered making it Plan 10 from outer space). But the movie just keeps forging ahead, giving the audience more of what it wants (that is, a naked Mathilda May), regardless of logic.

Dan O’Bannon scripted Lifeforce: although he also wrote the serious Alien, some of his other campy screenwriting efforts (Dark Star, Return of the Living Dead) suggest that his tongue might have been planted in his cheek when he delivered this wacky script to Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Hooper.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Extraordinarily bizarre mix of science fiction and vampire movie, more likely to provoke derision than any other emotion.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jörg Buttgereit

FEATURING: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice M.

PLOT:  A necrophiliac who works for a corpse disposal service loses his job, his perverted girlfriend, and finally his mind.

Still from Nekromantik (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although Nekromantik is indisputably weird—not simply in its bizarre concept, but in its numerous nightmare digressions from linearity—it can’t be recommended as a viewing experience.  It’s a badly made, tedious parade of revolting and nihilistic imagery with no ambition other than to shock the viewer.  When the film does utilize weirdness, it does so shallowly and irreverently, solely in service of its intent to disturb.

COMMENTS:  Like sex, inherently shocking imagery in film can be used well, to explore the human experience, or (more commonly) it can be used badly and exploitatively.  The ironic celebration of evil in A Clockwork Orange disturbs the viewer deeply, but the purpose of the film isn’t to shock us; it’s to provoke us into thinking more deeply about the problem of evil by forcefully confronting us with the paradox of free will.

Too many artists, however, have noticed that offending huge numbers of people is a far easier way to draw attention to themselves than working hard at their craft and creating something thoughtful and meaningful.  Sometimes, artists get confused and adopt a simple logical fallacy: much great art, like Nabokov’s “Lolita” or Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou, has shocked and offended large numbers of people; therefore, the purpose of great art must be to shock people.  (This artistic disorder is commonly known as “John Waters Syndrome”).  Most shocking art, however, is made with a more cynical hand, made with the artistic integrity of a freakshow proprietor.  This is the category into which Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik falls.

Un Chien Andalou opens with a shot of a woman’s eyeball being slit by a straight razor, juxtaposed with a shot of a cloud passing in front of the moon.  The image is shocking but artistic, suggestive and numinous.  Nekromantik opens with a shot of panties dropping and urine streaming onto the grass; the image is banal, and, besides breaking Continue reading CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

CAPSULE: INTACTO (2001)

AKA Intact

DIRECTED BY: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

FEATURING: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Mónica López, Max von Sydow

PLOT:  In a world where the power of luck is real and spread unequally, fortune’s favorites square off against each other in a series of secret tournaments, sometimes for mortal stakes.

Still from Intacto (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A weird kernel of an idea at the center of a movie can’t qualify it for the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time, without more. Intacto gives us a little bit more, in the form of the bizarre and unnerving rituals engaged in by luck’s elite, but although it’s a strange ride, it’s not enough.

COMMENTS: Intacto starts from a magical realist premise: an individual’s luck is not random, but quantifiable, like a red blood cell count. Some people have more of it than others, and it can be stolen, and traded. With that as the “what if?” starting point, first time director Fresnadillo constructs a strange world where the lucky carry grudges, face each other in underground tournaments, and use luck as a weapon. Structured as an arty dramatic thriller, the main fun to be had in Intacto comes from watching Fresnadillo slowly reveal the rules the fortunate play by. Particularly intriguing are the secretive games of chance the charmed set up to test their skills against one another; going far beyond five-card draw or craps, the matches are all highly artificial and ritualistic, with the rules not disclosed to the viewer beforehand, lending them a sense of mysterious gravity. The best and weirdest has a glowing green katydid selecting a champion by alighting on the molasses-smeared head of the luckiest blindfolded contestant in a darkened room in a casino basement. There’s a weirdish thrill to these mysterious bouts, but the rest of the thriller plot is not so thrilling. There are two converging plotlines. The primary strand features Federico, a former Chosen One who’s been robbed of his luck, seeking a disciple to square off against “the Jew” (a grave and typically impressive Max von Sydow), the lone survivor of a holocaust concentration camp and the reigning God of Chance. He finds one in Tomas, a bank robber and survivor of a plane crash. The secondary plot features Sara, a scarred female detective herself chosen by fortune, who seeks to bring Tomas to justice. The way the dual storylines play out in the climax is satisfying enough, but don’t expect any startling twists or heart-racing moments.

The major downside is that the film, thematically a metaphor about survivor guilt that’s difficult for the average person to connect with emotionally, is relentlessly downbeat and gloomy. Moody Tomas, backed by a morose Federico and hunted by glum female detective, squares off against the haunted Jew. Between the four of them, they can hardly manage to crack one joke or smile to lighten the mood. Intacto’s themes are weighty, but it also seems that director Fresnadillo is also convinced that an oppressive atmosphere is necessary to make an Important Film.

An inversion of Fresnadillo’s scenario can be found in 2003’s less effective and less weird The Cooler, starring William H. Macy as a mope who’s so ill-starred that a Las Vegas casino hires him to drain away the luck of roulette players and slot-jockeys.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Elegant and lucid, and inflected with its own weird species of drollery, Intacto is a cerebral occult thriller from first-time Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, unfolding like a dangerously tricky puzzle, teasing and provoking.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DEATH NOTE [Desu nôto] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shusuke Kaneko

FEATURING: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama

PLOT:  A law student finds a notebook (deliberately dropped by the God of Death) that

Still from Death Note (2006)

allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it; soon, criminals across the world start dropping dead, while, with the aid of super-detective “L,” the police race to stop the mysterious vigilante.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Death Note has a unique premise and execution, particularly in the way it mixes the fantasy and detective genres, and has potential as a cult film even beyond its existing magna/anime fanbase.  The presence of apple-munching Ryuuk, a lurking angel of death whose motives for making Light his emissary are never explained, gives this film a small tinge of weirdness, but other than that it abides by its own internal rules with such rigid consistency that it registers no more than an “offbeat” on the Weirdometer.

COMMENTSDeath Note begins with a potentially interesting premise, but spends most of its first reel setting up that premise in such a routine way that I feared it was going to be just another uninspiring Ringu variation.  Studying the law with the intention of becoming a district attorney, young Light magically gets the power to dispense capital punishment.  He targets only the vilest unrepentant criminals who have escaped justice.  The anonymous vigilante who slays with a stroke of the pen is anointed “Kira” and is applauded by legions of Internet groupies.  For a while it looks like we’re headed towards a depressingly obvious morality tale, with Light destined to fall from grace, abuse his power and accidentally execute an innocent man.  The first twist comes when we meet Ryuuk, a god of death and the source of Light’s new-found power; his motives are unknown and he proclaims himself neutral as to whether Light uses the Death Note or not.  Ryuuk constantly hangs around Light, apparently because he’s fallen hard for the earthly pleasure of the humble apple and Light has become his produce pusher.  The angel of death is an interesting character, but his idiosyncrasies take a while to unfold, and he’s a disappointment on other terms: he looks like an artist’s black and white rendering of Heath Ledger’s joker with bat wings attached, badly animated for a cheap video game.  He even moves like a game character, hovering slightly in the air with a stock expression until the game cursor hovers over him, at which point he jerks back his head and delivers his dialogue with a cartoonish cackle.  It’s to the script’s credit that despite the cheap animation, Ryuuk’s role is interesting enough that we eventually get used to him and forget about his distracting appearance.

The second wrinkle comes with the arrival of another oddball character, the anonymous sleuth “L,” who first appears as nothing more than a voice on a laptop.  Faced with a worldwide pandemic of accused murderers dropping dead from heart attacks after juries acquit them, the baffled police turn to the techno-detective, who cleverly narrows down the list of suspects from the entire population of the world to a small pool of Japanese students using pure deduction.  But the story doesn’t really take off until the halfway point, when Light turns his attentions from criminals to those tracking him down and new rules are introduced for the Death Note allowing him to write out elaborate scenarios to cause his victim’s demise, rather than unceremoniously dropping dead of a heart attack as they had previously.  Light needs his victim’s name in order to off him, and the anonymous L, driven by his own amoral sense of sport, seeks to discover Light’s identity as well.  The cat-and-mouse games between the two masterminds turn complicated, clever and thrilling, with L playing the part of a high-tech Sherlock while Light becomes a mystical Moriarty.  The story is spread over two feature films; this picture wraps up one story arc, but ends with Light and L at a stalemate to be broken in Death Note: The Last Name (2006).

Death Note has become a small franchise: based on a popular magna, it had previously been adapted as an anime series, it has spawned not only the of-a-piece sequel but a spin-off movie featuring L.  It’s also destined for a horribly uninteresting Hollywood remake.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Light’s goaded into his kill spree by the God of Death; a lolloping CGI ghoul in rock star clothes, who appears out of nowhere and offers advice while munching on apples. Weird, huh?”–Jamie Russell, BBC (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Victor Halperin

FEATURING: Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A Haitian plantation owner seeks the help of local witch doctor and zombie mogul ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to bewitch another man’s bride.

Still from White Zombie (1932)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTWhite Zombie can send quite the uncanny chill down your spine and is well worth a look for those seeking to soak up some classic Gothic atmosphere, but its weird elements are too submerged for it to make the List.

COMMENTS: Although talkies had been around for five years when White Zombie came out, the film is suffused with the sensibility of a silent movie, with the machinations of mustachioed villains causing damsels in flapper bobs to daintily faint.  The players still use the exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures of actors used to conveying emotions by pantomime, and when they do speak, they over-inflect, as if concerned with projecting their words into the last rows of a theater.  This mannered, operatic style, where the characters magnify their fear, grief, malice and wonder in an recognizable but unnatural way, plays right into Bela Lugosi’s larger-than-life persona.  The Hungarian, here again the soul of suave degeneracy, dominates the proceedings in what may be the second best performance of his career.  In an era where we’ve become used to completely naturalistic performances and sets, White Zombie‘s primitive aesthetic seems romantic and, yes, a little weird; when this stately style is wedded to such a stark good versus evil storyline, the results can be magical, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell.  Even the grain in the picture, the hiss in the soundtrack, and the jumps where a few frames of film are missing add to the dreamlike effect. (Watching White Zombie, it’s easy to see how Guy Maddin became intoxicated with this era of film).  The narrative holds few surprises, there are dry patches, and the action climax isn’t exactly a thrill ride.  But White Zombie features many wonderfully disquieting moments that worm their way under your skin and make you squirm in your seat, including the Haitian funeral set to ancient African tribal chants and the damned souls powering the creaking mill wheel at Legendre’s sugar cane factory.

This was the first film to bring the Haitian idea of the zombie—a soulless, re-animated corpse brought to life by a combination of drugs and witchcraft—to the cinema.  Lugosi, just a year off Dracula, was a hot horror commodity but a notoriously bad businessman: he only received $800 for the role of Legendre. 

White Zombie is in the public domain and therefore can be found in many different DVD packages. The best picture comes from the restored Roan Group print (now released by Alpha Video). Although the source material used is not pristine, the best value is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection (also containing Carnival of Souls and several other worthwhile titles, along with some stunning losers like Creature from the Haunted Sea). White Zombie is also in the public domain and can be legally viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Contemporary critics  found White Zombie childish, old-fashioned, and melodramatic.  They might have allowed that it was also a Gothic fairy tale filled with traditional symbols, dreamlike imagery, echoes of Romanticism, and (probably unintentional) psychosexual imagery.”–Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films