Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: MR. SADMAN (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Patrick Epino

FEATURING: Al No’mani, Scott McNairy, Rudy Ramos

PLOT: When he’s scarred in an assassination attempt on the eve of the Kuwait invasion, a mute Saddam Hussein body double with no skills or interests beyond impersonating the Iraqi dictator loses his job and moves to Los Angeles to start his life over.

Still from Mr. Sadman (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  More quirky than weird.  There are some offbeat montages, including a nutty but oddly appropriate music video stuck into the middle of the film, but not enough to elevate it to true weirdness.

COMMENTS: No doubt about it, it’s Al No’mani’s airy and amiable performance as Saddam Hussein impersonator Mounir that keeps Mr. Sadman, a low-key indie comedy with an inventive premise but not quite enough laughs or plot, afloat. No’mani is the requisite dead-ringer for the fascist dictator. But more importantly, with his arsenal of friendly, vulnerable, quizzical, and despondent expressions, Iraqi-born No’mani (who died soon after filming was complete) invests his silent character with a surprising amount of humanity, turning him into something like an unhinged but harmless and sweet uncle for whom the audience roots. It was a gamble to make Mounir mute, but it pays off; the handicap gives the character an unexpected everyman aura that makes his sparse backstory irrelevant. The film features some mild satirizing of the subculture of struggling L.A. actors and technicians trying to break into the Hollywood film industry; there’s a deeper warning about the absurdity of forging our own identities by emulating celebrities, but there’s no preaching. The message is implicit in the plot. The script scores occasional chuckles, particularly with a pair of pot-smoking Hollywood wannabes whose minds get blown when Mounir walks past them at a party as they’re watching Saddam on CNN, and a scene where the middle-aged Iraqi plays basketball with some homeboys. There are also a few groaners: Mounir’s antagonists are FBI Agents Wang and Johnson (a couple of dicks, get it?) True to the title, there is an undercurrent of melancholy, and Sadman is indebted as much to the classic alienation films of the late 1960s and early 1970s as it is to contemporary quirky indies. There’s an explicit citation to Taxi Driver, an obvious tribute to The Graduate, and scenes of a man-child in a ridiculous costume strolling down city streets oblivious to urban reactions can’t help but bring to mind Midnight Cowboy. The spirits of light comedy and despairing loneliness  sometimes mix uneasily—and the laughs are largely jettisoned by the finale—but for the most part, it works okay. The cinematography, music and editing are all professional. The script requires some leaps of faith: for example, I wasn’t convinced Mounir’s new-found Hollywood buddies would risk jail time to protect him from the FBI. With the exception of No’mani and Rudy Ramos as a hotel operator, the performances are spotty. But the Iraqi’s expressive facial acting lifts the film to something that, while uneven, is often touching.

As appears to be increasingly the case in a movie business convinced its customers are demanding fewer alternatives to repetitive Hollywood fare, Mr. Sadman has not found a distributor. The director is currently self-promoting the picture, and it can be downloaded for $8 from the Mr. Sadman site. The picture quality of the download is good, and I had no problem burning it to a standard DVD+RW for viewing on my television screen (individual results may vary).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fair warning: watching Mr. Sadman does require the viewer to suspend one’s disbelief entirely… [but] Ultimately, Mr. Sadman delivers what it promises: presenting a dark comedy about the face of evil who just wants to be loved.”–Jaimie Mendoza, Asia Pacific Arts (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PERFECT SLEEP (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Alter

FEATURING: Anton Pardoe, Roselyn Sanchez, Patrick Bauchau

PLOT: A man returns to dark, nameless city to save the life of “the one who got away,” putting his life at risk and his very soul at hazard while navigating the streets and his own past for clues as to her whereabouts.

Still from The Perfect Sleep (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the features of a shadowy noir city full of hyper-naturally Hammett-esque characters smack of something rather strange, The Perfect Sleep really isn’t all that odd, nor is it really that good. It’s more of a hyperbolic homage, a sort of tip-of-the-hat to the noir films of the 40s and 50s that’s so hard and abrupt that it tips the person under the hat. There’s tribute, there’s parody, and then there’s The Perfect Sleep, both somewhere in-between as well as something else entirely.

COMMENTS: There’s something to be said for the positively assaulting aesthetics that pervade this film. This town The Perfect Sleep exists in, extreme (and extremely hilarious) anachronisms aside, fully commits to the idea of the dark and atmospheric urban sprawl that populated so many crime dramas after World War II. Every alleyway seems dangerous, and nobody is who you think they are once you pass them in the night that seems to last forever. But once one soaks in the impressive scenery, The Perfect Sleep quickly becomes a bland song-and-dance routine that feels like an amalgam of Last Man Standing, Dark City, and Double Indemnity, aped poorly and without the safety net of an exorbitant budget. I feel, personally, that this movie’s prime directive should have been to let me in on the story at hand, what will be happening soon. Instead, we are allowed to get lost while the hero, Anton Pardoe, reads exposition distantly from a poor script. It’s like the story, and what our nameless hero is doing, is none of our business, and we’re supposed to just continue blithely along, hoping it will all get sorted out in the end.

The Perfect Sleep makes for a very passive movie watching experience that could have taken an example from The Big Sleep, a noir that had a rather weak story but a dynamic style that kept everyone engaged, thus making the mile-long plot holes seem to vanish into thin air. Instead of taking a page from that movie, though, we find ourselves locked into a story that the characters take incredibly seriously, but whose meaning is lost on the audience. As a weird movie, I would not even suggest it for its unusual moments. Some scenes, like when a freaky doctor punctures the lungs of a couple of strangers with a scalpel, work as unorthodox thriller moments or unnerving horror. But these bits are insignificant compared to the massive time spent amidst the clichés of a period crime drama/dark gangster flick. The critics were, for the most part, unanimous about The Perfect Sleep‘s banality, and I’m afraid I have to throw my hat into the ring with them, this time. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and there’s nothing very weird about that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfortunately, Alter’s often inventive work is kneecapped by a deliriously nonsensical script, which misses the mark as both over-the-top parody and straight-faced homage, and could have been intended as either.”-Andrew Barker, Variety

CAPSULE: PROMETHEUS TRIUMPHANT: A FUGUE IN THE KEY OF FLESH (2009)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Mike McKown, Jim Towns

FEATURING: Josh Ebel, Kelly I. Lynn

PLOT: A mad doctor reanimates the body of his loved one who has died in a plague.

Still from Prometheus Triumphant: A Fugue in the Key of Flesh (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Silent films have an inherently dreamlike feel to them that gives them a leg up in the weird department. Prometheus Triumphant fails to capture and exploit this feeling, leaving us with a dull and lifeless film devoid of sound, color or interest.

COMMENTS: It’s tempting to give amateur films bonus points for good intentions, but with Prometheus Triumphant it seems like the filmmakers didn’t do due diligence to create something professional looking, thinking that a cool concept alone could carry the film. The first problem, as is usually the case, is the plot, a groaningly obvious and unoriginal mix of Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera that’s as thin as stage blood. Action is almost nonexistent: after embarking on his grave-robbing spree, it takes “The Creator” almost ten minutes to dig up and cart away his first corpse, and most of that time is spent watching him walk with a wheelbarrow across a bleak and uninteresting field with a few prop crucifixes in the foreground.

With no surprises or suspense in the story, Prometheus needs a strong visual look to compensate, one it’s incapable of generating on its budget. A few kind critics have implied that the film evokes the look of German Expressionism, but I’m led to wonder if they’ve ever actually seen a work of classic German expressionism. It’s true that both Prometheus and its inspirations are in black and white and use Gothic imagery, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone confusing a perfectly framed and detailed still from Nosferatu or Caligari with the mundane angles and dull sets of this one. Composer Lucein Desar clearly has some talent, but not enough ideas to stretch out over 80 minutes, and the score becomes repetitive and irritating.

Not all of Prometheus‘ flaws can be forgiven due to budgetary limitations; some of them come from an endemic lack of attention to detail. A shot containing a modern steel handrail and concrete steps in 1899 might be forgiven, but a navel ring on the corpse of a dead peasant girl can’t be. Even more revealing are the mistakes that show up in the intertitles. Many people confuse “throws” for “throes,” but in this day of automatic spellcheckers, how can anyone let a goof like “existance” slip into a project that’s intended to be professional? And if you’re going to misspell a term you’re only vaguely familiar with, such as “Bürgermeister,” at least be consistent: don’t use “Bergmeister” sometimes and “Burgmeister” other times.

It may seem picky, but these mistakes help explain why the flick is so listless in the end. Everyone seems so excited by the cool overarching concept of recreating a classic silent movie that they forgot to work on the little things that make a work breathe. It’s almost as if the camerawork, imagery, acting, script, action, sets, locations, costumes, and makeup all have no higher aspiration than to be usable, and the directors were satisfied if they turned out adequate. The end result isn’t a meaningful tribute to Murnau, Wiene and Lang; if it weren’t so sincerely intended, it would be an insult. Prometheus Triumphant reinforces every negative stereotype mainstream viewers have about silent films being boring and inferior. It’s what all bad, amateur horror movies would look like today if cinema had never developed sound, color, or slashers.

The DVD contains a short film by the same directorial team, “The Sleep of Reason,” that shows a bit more promise than Prometheus actually delivered. Despite the fact that the feature didn’t work on an entertainment or artistic level, I wouldn’t write Towns and McKown off as hacks. Sometimes things just don’t come together the way the creators imagined. At least they had some fun and hopefully learned some valuable lessons; but sadly, better-made independent features are sitting on shelves, while this failed experiment gets a relatively decent distribution deal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for all its poetic visual bravura, seems distant when it should be dynamic, yet still worth the effort.”–Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967)

AKA:  Blood Island

DIRECTED BY: David Green

FEATURINGOliver Reed, Gig Young, Flora Robson,

PLOT: In this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, a a string of grisly killings is linked to an unnameable creature inhabiting the loft of an abandoned New England mill inherited by newlyweds.

Still from THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:   The Shuttered Room showcases a strange story of monsters and madness. The setting is claustrophobic and creepy, the characters are downright bizarre, and so are the situations that the protagonists stumble into. The cinematography is expertly, if not artfully, executed. Thus the viewer expects a conventional storyline, and it is unsettling when shocking events unfold.

COMMENTS:  A newlywed couple, Mike and Susannah Kelton (Young, Lynley) travel to an island off of the Connecticut shoreline to visit an old mill which Sue just inherited.  It was once her childhood home.  From the start, she has reservations, but the couple perseveres at Mike’s urging.  They need to view the property with the goal of renovating the mill into a bed and breakfast.

As soon as they arrive on the island, the locals begin subjecting them to the old “Yew ain’t from around here!” treatment (even though Sue is). Mike meets her uncle who insists that they should leave.  The uncle’s employee shows Mike his mutilated face, missing an eye, and reports that the injury was caused by the devil when he got drunk and spent a night in the abandoned mill.  The couple also meet the local ruffians, a gang of unsavory toughs led by a psychopath named Ethan (Reed), who happens to be Sue’s cousin.  Mike is a dignified magazine editor. Both he and Sue are city-slickers—and it Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967)

CAPSULE: VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Bogdanovich (using the pseudonym Derek Thomas)

FEATURING: Mamie van Doren

PLOT: Three cosmo—I mean, astro-nauts—are sent to Venus to rescue two missing comrades,while Venusian blondes in seashell bras pester them from afar by sending volcanoes, thunderstorms and dinosaurs to hinder them.

Still from Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Prehistoric Women is a classic Frankenstein-film, stitched together from various pieces of footage lying around the studio. The movie was made from dubbed footage from the Soviet space opera Planeta Bur, some effects from a second Soviet science fiction film, new voiceover narration which changes the focus of the original plot, and added scenes shot years later featuring English-speaking actors. Not only is the discrepancy between film stocks, soundtracks and atmospheres disorienting, but the new footage of (top-billed) Mamie van Doren and other scantily clad, pterodactyl worshiping Venusian dames is itself bizarre. This makes Prehistoric Women a worthy curiosity, if one for specialized tastes. Unfortunately, the movie is neither entertaining nor demented enough to merit inclusion among the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Though it was seriously intended, the original 1962 Soviet space opera that forms the bedrock stratum of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women was not a great movie. Looking at it from a post-Cold War perspective, the most valuable thing about it is the revelation that, despite petty ideologically differences, the US and the USSR were not so different as we supposed at the time: both societies assumed that nearby planets in our shared solar system would probably be inhabited by dinosaurs. Technically speaking, the special effects are highly variable: the hovercar looks great, the giant-tentacled cosmonaut-eating Venus flytrap is not bad, the tin-can robot is standard Forbidden Planet surplus issue, and the men in dinosaur suits are as cheesy as anything you might see in a low-budget 1950s American sci-fi epic. The color, which was tinted from the original black and white, is extremely washed out in surviving prints, a look that producer and director Bogdanovich managed to keep consistent for the new sequences; or, maybe, the passage of time did their work for them. The muted colors add another layer of unreality to the film.

Looking at the original Soviet film, you have to believe that Corman was onto something: what this movie really needed was a bunch of sunbathing, telepathic, pterodactyl-worshiping sirens in skintight pants and clamshell bras to liven things up. The gratuitous mermaid babe sequences are the most memorable parts. Every time the explorers face an environmental Venusian threat like a volcano or thunderstorm, it turns out the ladies’ pagan ceremonies were the cause. Their siren scenes, which all take place on a single rocky beach, are accompanied by an eerie, wordless keening, and the fact that the prehistoric witches never speak except in voiceover does add a legitimately dreamlike feel to these sequences. Prehistoric Women is slow (and incoherent) by contemporary standards, but the patient viewer seeking a cinematic experience that’s the equivalent of a fractured dream half-remembered after falling asleep on the couch at 2 A.M. while watching a sci-fi marathon on a UHF station will find this to be mildly rewarding.

This was the ever-frugal Corman’s second attempt to recycle footage from Planeta Bur. In 1965 he released the same Russian footage, with different inserts, as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. The earlier film featured a few scenes of top-billed star Basil Rathbone as a mission control type back on earth, barking extraneous orders to the stranded cosmonauts that were relayed to them through yet another unnecessary character. Mamie and her buxom coven were a big upgrade over Basil, and not just in pulchritude; without the ridiculous Venusian siren subplot, Prehistoric Planet was a much duller experience, while remaining just as confusing.

Because Corman was too cheap to renew the copyrights on his 50s and 60s movies, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women fell into the public domain.  It can be found on many bargain-priced compilations or can be legally viewed or downloaded by anyone through the Internet Archive or other sites.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[the] very peculiar ending… has a weird B movie pulp poetry to it.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

C APSULE: ABSURDISTAN (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kristyna Malérová, Max Mauff

PLOT: A young couple’s about-to-be-consummated love is threatened when the women of their village organize a sex strike against the lazy townsmen who will not fix the pipe that brings water to the hamlet.

Absurdistan

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disqualified for false advertising in the title: there’s nothing absurdist in this shamelessly romantic comedy. Still, it’s an offbeat and often beautiful fable that’s kilometers and kilometers away from the competition in this most formulaic of genres. A good date night movie for people who aren’t idiots.

COMMENTS: Absurdistan takes place in a central Asian village, once famed among merchants traveling the Silk Road for its beautiful women and virile menfolk, but now forgotten by the modern world. Unburdened by cell phones, social networking sites and other conveniences of the modern age, the villagers have reverted to simpler ways—which is to say, they think mainly about sex. And as long as the men are getting it, they have little incentive to do anything else, since the women take up the duties of baking, herding, and farming out of necessity. They grow too lazy even to fix the town’s water pipe, preferring enduring drought and living in filth to the unacceptable prospect of working up a good sweat. Although sex in Absurdistan is used as a weapon, overall, the village’s attitude towards the dirty deed is refreshingly frank and seems innocent and healthy compared to our own: its importance is freely acknowledged and respected, and not hidden from the children like a shameful secret. This perspective gives the movie a tastefully lusty charm that’s reminiscent of its inspiration, Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.”

The most unique aspect of Absurdistan is the scarcity of dialogue; background info is given via voiceover, but very few words are actually spoken by the characters (and except for the heroine’s name, no words at all are spoken by the male lead). This is partly due to circumstance; few in the internationally assembled cast could speak properly accented Russian. More importantly, as an artistic choice it gives the film an aura of timelessness and universality. With no verbal exchanges, the comedy is delivered silent-movie style, and isn’t always exactly subtle: there’s a bit where a man stuffs two watermelons into a brassiere in order to infiltrate the women’s camp. None of the gags are gut-busting, but along with the top-notch desert cinematography, exotic music, and assured storytelling, it’s enough to keep the audience well-charmed until the climax.

Director/co-writer Veit Helmer doesn’t skimp on the sentiment—after completing their quest to save the parched village, the young lovers are granted not one but two fairy tale happy endings with heart-melting, magical images. But the hearts and flowers aren’t slopped on simply because the target demographic expects it. In the service of an original, well-told story, Helmer earns the right to be a bit sappy, and we earn the right to enjoy it.

Helmer also helmed 1999’s Tuvalu, which features a similar streamlined storyline with minimal dialogue, but adds experimental film-tinting and more surrealistic touches and absurd humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre yet charming plot, and the overall ensemble insanity — like Amélie meets Dogville, though not as compelling as either — is curiously entertaining.”–Chris Bilton, Eye Weekly

CAPSULE: GRACE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Solet

FEATURING: Jordan Ladd, Gabrielle Rose, Stephen Park

PLOT: A mother gives birth to a stillborn baby girl after a car wreck leaves her young family dead. The baby, however, comes back to life shortly after she is born. Unfortunately, the infant girl, with her proclivity to attract flies and drink human blood, is far from what her mother expected from parenthood.

Still from Grace (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are sequences in Grace that approach a state of uncomfortable strangeness, but too often the movie subverts itself and stews in its own conformity by sticking to horror conventions. By the time there’s a chance for a chance for what might have been a truly remarkable climax, the film has devolved into a maternal instincts cat-and-mouse thriller of sorts.

COMMENTS: Out of the gate, Grace has a strong concept that needs to be applauded. The undead-baby market has been virtually untapped, and I’m glad someone finally “went there.” The indie horror circuit has buzzed about writer and director Paul Solet as the next big thing, and this, his feature-length debut, is a notable entry amidst the middling horror releases this year. This is a strong film that is fresh, fairly terrifying, and smarter than one might think.

Grace’s complicated spirit masks itself in familiar trappings. It has an intellectual mindset, full of surprisingly difficult questions about a myriad of issues: veganism, lesbianism, midwives, maternal instincts, and coping with loss. And while we don’t always know where the filmmakers stand on said issues, posing the questions is intriguing enough. The ideas revolve around the modern family, and its new-found complexities in the 21st century coalescing with the timeless trials of parenthood. We witness complex relationships where people are intertwined in ways that are hard to understand, and at times hard to take; this is a movie where a woman asks her husband to suck her breast like he was a baby out of maternal grief for her dead son!

But in the end, it chickens out quietly and ends up being a horror movie like all the rest. The plot untangles rather quickly as we shift from a particularly nasty mother-daughter relationship to a thriller involving a mother-in-law off her rocker. In a brief 87 minutes, we’re back to basics, with only a hint of weird lying around as a memento in the form of Grace, a somewhat zombified child. What could have been something remarkable is instead just good, and while it won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, I was really looking for something more from a film that proposed such interesting ideas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a horror movie but not a simple genre widget. That it’s rooted in reality gives its strange images the power to disturb. Even its environment is unusual, informed by women’s studies and alternative medicine.”-Michael Ordona, LA Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF THE DEAD (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Uwe Boll

FEATURING: Jonathan Cherry, Ona Grauer, Clint Howard,

PLOT: Teenagers go to the Isle of the Dead for the “rave of the century,” but ravenous killing machines from somewhere within the zombie genus spoil the party.

Still from House of the Dead (2003)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Uwe Boll’s weirdest idea is to periodically insert brief, totally unrelated clips from the “House of the Dead” video game into fight scenes in the House of the Dead movie. It’s not enough of a gambit to make this into a truly weird experience, but combined with the film’s transcendental, comic dumbness, it’s enough to make it an interesting curiosity.

COMMENTS: I think the people who have voted House of the Dead into the IMDB bottom 100 movies are too hung up on little things like believable characters, continuity, acting that doesn’t embarrass the performers, and dialogue that respects the intelligence of the target audience. Those are fine qualities in, say, a movie about a poor seamstress who falls in love with a consumptive poet in 19th century England, but they’re just window dressing in a movie about pumping as many bullets into the heads of as many zombies as possible in 90 minutes. Uwe Boll understands this, and, with an honesty that proved too brutally revealing for the 2003 movie watching public to handle, he delivered an experience in House of the Dead that’s the equivalent of sitting in front of a video game screen for an hour and a half, watching blood spatter, without even having to frantically press buttons for the gory payoff. I could say many uncharitable things about the inessential technical qualities of House of the Dead, but I can’t say that I was ever bored watching it, or that it reminded me of any other film in existence. The unbelievable seven minute centerpiece alone should save it from being listed among the worst movies of all time. Set to a relentless rap/metal metronome meant only to pump adrenaline, not generate suspense, it features photogenic, scantily-clad teens grabbing a cache of automatic weapons and slaughtering legions of living dead extras while Boll experiments with Matrix-style “bullet time” effects. Blood spatters; heads explode; college girls in low-cut, skintight American flag jumpsuits reveal ninja-quality melee skills; grenade blasts fling bodies through the air; guns inexplicably change from rifles to pistols in the blink of an eye. All the while, video game footage flashes onscreen, complete with health bars and “free play” notices.

There’s an energy and misplaced love of brain-dead action moviemaking here that’s brilliant, in its own way. It’s as effective a parody of the first-person shooter mentality as will ever be committed to celluloid. Add in shameless gratuitous nudity and pepper with headscratching verbal exchanges (“You did all this to become immortal.  Why?” “To live forever!”) and you have a movie that is unforgettable in its stupidity.

If you gave this exact same material to a competent hack like Michael Bay, he would work it over, smoothing out the rough patches of dialogue and continuity errors and polishing it to a dull, marketable, mediocre sheen. Given a modicum of acceptable storytelling and a surface appearance of competence, audiences wouldn’t feel so insulted—although the joke would be on them, since at bottom the result would be just as dumb. I much prefer the rough-hewn, all-too-human character of Boll’s work, which is at least interesting in its flaws.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cheese of the purest stripe, bafflingly bad to the point of being oddly charming in its brain-dead naivete.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SURVEILLANCE (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Jennifer Lynch

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Julia Ormand, Michael Ironside

PLOT: Two FBI agents/weirdos harass criminals and innocents alike as they search for a couple of murderers to whom they might have ties.

Still from Surveillance (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Think CSI or NCIS meets Natural Born Killers. The weird quotient is totally crushed by the earthbound whodunnit quotient. It shows promise early on, and while the subtleties of the genre don’t escape my grasp, I don’t think that, in a truly weird movie, I should be asking “whodunit?,” but rather, “what the hell’s going to happen next?”

COMMENTS: Surveillance is the sophomore directorial effort by possibly-nepotistic director Jennifer Lynch, her first being the acclaimed/notorious Boxing Helena. This little nugget of info was what really interested me about seeing Surveillance, and I was hoping, no, begging for it to be just as weird as Helena without, hopefully, the punch-in-the-dignity twist ending.

What I got, unfortunately, was a moderate amount of sadism and unusual behavior, but a decidedly pedestrian tone. It’s a pretty good film, but it’s simply not weird enough to keep me thinking about it or talking about it after I’ve seen it. The leads, and Julia Ormand, are good, and I like the dangerous chemistry between them, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before verbatim in other movies. The stand-out here is the vicious Michael Ironside, who plays the torturous Captain Jennings, a psychotic cop with a penchant for roughing up people and generally acting schizophrenic. I love his character, and I love his particular intensity that recalls his heyday, circa Scanners.

The script, also by Lynch, is devious, with plenty of funky, uneven dialog that recalls, in small doses, her father‘s wording from Wild at Heart (“Those are dummies, dummy!”). Her direction isn’t bad, either, although far from inspired. She has a good time playing with different filters and tones here, but it’s pretty standard fare. Surveillance is solid feature that I actually enjoyed a bit, and would recommend as a definite rental possibility, but don’t come looking for something genuinely freaky here, because this film can’t sustain real-deal strange in large doses. Jennifer Lynch somehow manages to makes a better film than her debut, but at the expense of creating anything exceptional.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Jennifer Lynch tried way too hard to follow in the deep blue surrealist footsteps of her father, David Lynch… But she finds her own voice in Surveillance, a grubby, disturbing serial-killer mystery, a kind of blood-simple Rashomon.”-Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIRST [BAKJWI] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim

PLOT: A priest becomes a vampire after he receives a blood transfusion during an experimental treatment to find a cure for a deadly virus; after his transformation he becomes erotically obsessed with a young woman who lives as a virtual slave to the family that adopted her.

Still from Thirst [Bakwjwi] (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  All of Park’s films at least flirt with weirdness, and Thirst is no exception. In a way, however, this vampire drama is the Korean fantasist’s most conventional effort. Aside from a disorienting dream sequence intercut into a bout of lovemaking, Park adds only a few short surrealistic bursts here and there, instead sticking surprisingly close to the vampire formula.

COMMENTS: Like all Chan-wook Park films, Thirst is technically excellent: the cinematography, musical accents, and nuanced performances are all top-notch. The plot, while rambling and overlong, ties up loose ends neatly by the end. Many of the individual scenes are nearly perfect, too; the long and violent sequence where a furious Sang-hyeon forcibly converts Tae-joo into a vampire in front of her paralyzed adoptive mother is intense and beyond criticism. Hae-sook Kim’s Lady Ra has a particularly excellent turn that catches fire once her character becomes nearly comatose, and Song and Kim’s love scenes sizzle with guilt-ridden eroticism. Park even scales back the distracting, heavily stylized directorial flourishes (such as the dotted line coming off the hammer in Oldboy) that seem to pop up in his every effort just because the director thinks they look cool; the imagery in Thrist flows naturally, like uncoagulated blood.

With all of the above going for it, what I found most shocking about Thirst is how little spark or originality it emanates. We’ve seen the tragic reluctant vampire since 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and thirst for blood has always been a metaphor for lust (in the 1970s exploitation filmmakers became quite explicit with the theme in flicks like Lust for a Vampire and Vampyres). There’s no real spin on the vampire legend to be found here. A few traditional nemeses—garlic and crucifixes—have been jettisoned, but the vampire’s psychological essence—predation and isolation—remains intact. Making the bloodsucking protagonist a priest, while adding the superficial appearance of depth, doesn’t pay off in any profound poetic or philosophical way.  If there’s a spiritual dilemma to be found here, it’s of the mostobvious sort, as the fallen Father struggles to reconcile his vow to serve his suffering flock with his need to drink their blood and avoid sunlight.

The film’s supposed organizing principle, the vampiric curse, gives way to a noirish supernatural love triangle; as it turns out, it’s that old snake in the garden, sex, that’s the root of all evil, not nocturnal bloodsucking. The shift from the struggle to create a personal system of ethical vampirism to a story about falling for a femme fatale means film looses its thematic focus, if not its drama, about halfway through. Thirst is well worth the watch, but frankly, it left me thirsty for more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If, like me, you believe Thirst can’t possibly get any weirder, then you’re in for a comically surreal ride as Park’s genre mash careens of the beaten logical path into that magic land that seems to exist only in the mind of Korean filmmakers.”–Jacob Powell, The Lumiere Reader (contemporaneous)