With this 2011 Warner Archive Release, most of Erich von Stroheim’s “personally directed” films have been released with the inexplicable, frustrating exclusion of his legendary, mutilated Greed (1924). Only von Stroheim could have taken Franz Lehar’s 1905 giddy operetta “The Merry Widow” and turned it into a silent fetishistic melodrama. The Merry Widow stars Mae Murray and John Gilbert. Murray’s screen persona alternated between virgin and vamp . Here, she is the virgin who becomes the much sought after prize. Despite having unique on-screen charisma, Murray, one of early cinema’s true divas, was among those who could not make the transition to sound, and her off-screen life was not afforded a happy ending. She married a real-life Prince who forced her to leave MGM, then divorced her, and took custody of their children. Years later, Murray, homeless, was arrested for sleeping on park bench in NYC. She died, forgotten and in poverty, in a nursing home in 1965. Gilbert’s decline into alcoholism is, of course, far better documented.
Quite surprisingly, The Merry Widow was a critical and box office success for von Stroheim. The film was so successful that it was remade in 1934 by Ernst Lubitsch (as a musical, replete with the Lubitsch touch, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald) and in a best-forgotten 1952 version starring Lana Turner. Despite a studio mandated, ill-fitting happy ending, von Stroheim’s silent version is, predictably, the most bizarre. The director added much to the story, stamping it with his idiosyncratic touch and causing the film to go considerably over schedule and over budget. The previous Continue reading ERICH VON STROHEIM’S THE MERRY WIDOW (1925)→
PLOT: Documentary covering exploitation films made in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s, both by Filipinos and by American companies looking for cheap labor and exotic locations.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few of the films mentioned (For Y’ur Height Only?) might be worthy of consideration for the List, but this documentary survey is a curiosity piece—and possibly a place to get ideas for your Netflix queue.
COMMENTS: There are two strands to Machete Maidens. One is the history of an enterprising but anarchic third-word film industry and the American carpetbaggers who flocked there to make cheap pictures, packed with war stories from those who were there. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (who loaned army helicopters to American filmmakers in the evenings after they’d spent the mornings strafing Islamic rebels) and notorious first lady Imelda (who allegedly ordered dead workers’ bodies to be left in the cement of the Manila Film Center so the project could be completed in time to host a film festival) remain in the background as villains throughout the entire epic. On the front lines, American filmmakers and actors relate stories of pistol-packing makeup men and cockroach-infested living conditions (at one point Sid Haig describes his accommodations by saying “I saw a rat carrying a kitten out the window”).
But as interesting as this backdrop might be, the main attraction is not the island’s political scenery, but the movies made there for export. These reflected the evolving shock aesthetic of the American drive-ins, not tropical politics. The scandalous profit margins of native filmmaker Eddie Romero’s “Blood Island” horror movies, with their cheap rubber-masked monsters menacing topless Filipino babes, were the proof-of-concept legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman needed to ship contract director Jack Hill off to the islands to produce his smash hit The Big Doll House. This revolutionary sleaze introduced the world to the concept of women’s prisons as topless entertainment centers, and also to the enormous talents of burgeoning bust icon Continue reading CAPSULE: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)→
PLOT: British farmers unite with Churchill and Scotsmen to repel Nazis who invade London by
tunneling under the English Channel.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The idea of an absurd Nazi invasion of England acted out by children’s toys is odd and appealing, but the premise is undercooked, and never hits either the weird or (more importantly) the comic notes that it should.
COMMENTS: Hitler in a dress! That should be funny, right? It could be either a great punchline, or the beginning of a running series of gags that see (for example) der Führer more concerned with what’s going on with his hemlines than with developments on the front lines. But Hitler’s transvestite cameo is emblematic of the problem with Jackboots. The joke is never developed; the movie just trots out the dictator dressed as the Queen of England, with a pearl-handled Luger, and expects us to laugh. Although the occasional amusing one-liner slips through the fog of war (usually delivered by Timothy Spall in his dead-on Churchill impression), for the most part Jackboots‘ quips don’t exactly stomp on your funny bone. They’re sparse, as well. A lot of time is devoted to chuckle-free dramatic scenes between big-handed farmhand turned soldier Chris (McGregor), his lady-love Daisy (Pike), and her disapproving Vicar father (Grant), as well as to intricate battles between plastic Panzers and Punjabi guards that—considering they’re enacted with toy tanks fighting Ken dolls in turbans—are more thrilling than expected. Jackboots is part WWII movie parody (with a roughneck American pilot who thinks the Nazis are Commies), part clever historical references (the defeated Brits retreat to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Germans are fearful of pursuing where even the Romans dared not go), and part pure silliness (a Braveheart spoof takes up a large part of the last act). There is a running undercurrent of mock-prejudice against the Scottish (who are depicted as cannibals in skirts) that must be funnier to U.K. residents than to those in the U.S. and elsewhere—at least, I hope it is; otherwise, it’s just another Jackboots comic misfire. The movie manages to be unique without ever finding its own voice, which makes it interesting without ever being engaging. Mainstreamers hoping for a script with the sly gross-out humor of Team America or the pop-culture savvy of TV’s “Robot Chicken” (which uses the same action-figure aesthetic as Jackboots) will be disappointed, if not angry and frustrated, by the oblique comedy on display here. But even if it’s not riotously funny, little touches like a ghoulish pig-nosed Goebbels, a cat who looks like Hitler, puppet gore, and an attack vanguard of bazooka-wielding Nazi dominatrices in black lipstick should be enough to keep weirdophiles watching to the end.
Though the end result is mediocre, Jackboots‘ crazy synopsis managed to attract top-notch cult British acting talent. Besides McGregor, Pike, Spall and Grant, the voiceover cast includes Alan Cumming (as Hitler), Tom Wilkinson (as Goebbels), and Richard O’Brien (as Himmler).
PLOT: A crazed cannibalistic killer goes after fathers in his rape/murder spree. One-eyed
assassin/maple syrup maker Ahab, young priest Father John Sullivan, paranoid streetwalker Twink, and mystery-solving stripper Chelsea all seek revenge, teaming up for a strange and scattered mission.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: An eye-patched vigilante, a topless stripper with a chainsaw, a nearsighted cannibal rapist, incest, demonic possession, trips to both heaven and hell, a non sequitur commercial for low-budget sci-fi “Star Raiders,” hallucinogenic berries: Father’s Day has a lot of weirdness to recommend it. It starts off as a fairly standard (and insanely gory) grindhouse throwback, but evolves into a bizarre and fantastic adventure that just might be weird enough for the List.
COMMENTS: Known for their impressive output of horror and comedy shorts, Winnipeg-based collective Astron-6 combines DIY filmmaking with a sick sense of humor and unadulterated love for 80’s straight-to-video schlock. After making a trailer for the fake exploitation flick “Father’s Day,” Troma offered the group $10,000 to produce a full-length feature of the concept. At the start it seems like a standard, and completely gruesome, grindhouse throwback with grisly close-ups of penis mutilation and sickening rape/murders set alongside over-the-top character archetypes and an enthusiastic score. As Ahab (Adam Brooks), Father John (Matthew Kennedy), and Twink (Conor Sweeney) team up in the wake of several close-to-home father murders, it begins to take a turn for the ludicrous and eventually plunges into all-out wacky fantasy, seeming to forget its initial narrative and stylistic leanings—and becoming better for it.
With real pig intestines, buckets of fake blood, and a well-laid green screen, Father’s Day maintains a dark, grungy aesthetic that works well with its 70’s appropriations while exuding DIY innovation that sets it apart from some of its peers. Steven Kostanski’s stop-motion hell creations and an extended trip around the world for Father John are among the many segments that vary in style and tone. There’s even a goofy commercial for a fake Star Wars rip-off thrown in about two-thirds of the way through (the feature itself is introduced as a “midnight movie” tv program). Astron-6 seems to have hundreds of ideas and little interest in streamlining, resulting in a surprisingly dense 99 minutes as myriad references, off-kilter jokes, side-trips, and subplots arise and descend. Luckily, most of them work, but the ones that don’t result in some unevenness, especially in the overall tone. The noticeable shift towards the middle is somewhat jarring, but not a dealbreaker.
Father’s Day may be sick and twisted in many ways, but it manages to be most of all fun. The Astron-6 gang looks like they’re having a blast just being silly together as the plot becomes more and more ridiculous. The whole cast is great, injecting equal amounts of parody and imagination into their roles, and I especially enjoyed the main three male leads, who have excellent comedic chemistry. The film’s biggest flaw is its tonal inconsistencies, but for many viewers the inclusion of so many ideas and exploitation references will likely be appreciated. Astron-6 decided to really go all-out for this film, and by holding nothing back they will impress many and alienate those who wouldn’t get it anyway. And I have a feeling they’re fine with that.
When November and December roll around, we rush to catch up on all the weird stuff you may have missed in 2011. To that end, we’ll be looking at another quartet of new releases this upcoming week, starting off with this sick ‘n weird patricide pic Father’s Day (2011). Next we’ll check out what happens when Nazi action figures led by Hitler in an evening gown invade London in the animated alternate history comedy Jackboots on Whitehall (2010), then ogle Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010), an exploitation doc/clip show in the American Grindhouse vein, but focused on WTF Filipino flicks of the 1970s. And just to remind you that “new release” doesn’t always mean something made in the last year or two, Alfred Eaker will give you the skinny on Warner Archive’s long-awaited DVD-R of Erich von Stroheim’s classic silent melodrama The Merry Widow (1925).
We are distressed at the deadening normality of the search terms that passed through our server logs this week. We are contractually obligated to pick a Weirdest Search Term of the Week, however, so we will do our best with what we have. A search for “hitler magic porno video” might look weird if you’re running a website devoted to pictures of cute kitties in baseball caps, but for us it’s just par for the course: if there actually were Hitler magic porno videos, we like to think we would be the ones covering them. A little bit weirder is “hollywood old movies black and white village saxy shat”: again, if such films only existed, we would be the ones bringing you the old Hollywood movies with the saxiest shat. We’ll go in a different direction and give this week’s Weirdest award to “seeex aanal poooorn.” The suggestion that more vowels = hotter pr0n search results is bizarre enough to squeak by in a weak field.
We’re neglecting covering titles in the vast reader-suggested review queue, but you guys haven’t slowed down making your suggestions, meaning the list is growing to truly embarrassing proportions. Check it out and see what we’re talking about: Kairo [AKA Pulse];The American Astronaut; Blood Tea and Red Strings; The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. II (for Lucifer Rising, Continue reading WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE→
“Snowballs” is evidently the more bizarre of Harmony Korine’s two shorts sponsored by the designer brand Proenza Schouler. (The previous Korine short in the series, “Act da Fool,” is also available on YouTube.) “Snowballs” features two characters in Native American inspired clothing, and, not surprisingly, white trash.
CONTENT WARNING: This short contains some profanity.
Dueling Snow White’s: It looks like the story of 2012 will be the Snow White sweepstakes, as it has just come to our notice (why are we always the last ones to hear?) that there are two reimaginings of the fairy tale scheduled to battle it out next year. Relativity Media/Studio Canal’s “Untitled Snow White Project,” which we reported on a few weeks ago, now has a title (Mirror, Mirror), and it will reach theaters in March 2012. The higher profile offering is Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman (from the producers of Alice in Wonderland), starring Kristen Stewart as White and Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen. Huntsman has an effects-heavy trailer and looks to be another revisionist/feminist/video game styled action/fantasy; it’s slated for a summertime opening. Our cynical guess is that both fairy-flicks will be underwhelming, but if we have to pick one as more promising than the other, we’ll stick with Mirror, Mirror. We find an aging Julia Roberts a more intriguing Queen than an aging Charlize Theron. Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) is a proven commodity vs. first time helmer Rupert Sanders (who comes from the world of television commercials). But the most important factor in Mirror, Mirror‘s favor is that it is not from the producers of Alice in Wonderland. Mirror, Mirror on Facebook / Snow White and the Huntsman official page.
NEW ON DVD:
1 in the Gun (2010): Direct-to-DVD erotic neo-noir sees a homeless artist hired to paint a trophy wife’s home, followed by lots of twists and (per the promo material) “David Lynch-style surrealism.” The director has been quietly busy directing a series of softcore movies reviving the old Emmanuelle franchise, including Emmanuelle vs. Dracula and the upcoming Emmanuelle in Wonderland! Buy 1 in the Gun.
In a Glass Cage [Tras el Cristal] (1987): A former Nazi pedophile now confined to an iron lung finds himself at the mercy of a young caretaker. Shocking stuff when it was released, and definitely not for anyone who can’t stand to see children in jeopardy. The bonus disc includes interviews with director Agusti Villaronga and three of his early experimental short films. Buy In a Glass Cage (2 Disc Special Edition).
Skeleton Key 3: The Organ Trail (2011): It’s hard to say exactly what caught our interest about this third microbudget horror-comedy sequel to a movie we’d never heard of before, but it probably had something to do with this odd promotional copy: “Can you handle naked bodies bouncing through every scene? Can YOU! HANDLE! A French puppet?” Plus, it has a cameo from Lloyd Kaufman, and he’s never loaned his presence to any flick that wasn’t of the absolute highest quality—has he? Buy Skeleton Key 3: The Organ Trail.
The Sleeping Beauty (2010): Catherine Breillat takes her second stab at adapting a classic fairy tale with modern feminist sensibilities (after the strangely muted, very slightly weird Bluebeard). Much of the narrative here takes place in Beauty’s dreams as she slumbers and encounters dream ogres and dwarfs, giving rise to hopes of more surrealistic imagery this time out. This French offering is not to be confused with Australian Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011), starring Emily Browning. Buy The Sleeping Beauty.
ThanksKilling (2009): Read our capsule review. We have no idea what happened to the previous DVD version of ThanksKilling, or how this disc differs, but here’s a new release of this heartwarming gore classic, just in time for Turkey Day. Buy ThanksKilling.
Blue Velvet (1986): When young Jefferey discovers a severed ear in the grass, the search for its owner leads him on a voyage where he will discover the dark side of small town America, and of himself, in this nightmarish mystery that ranks as one of David Lynch‘s best. Blue Velvet on Blu-ray, now there’s a match made in weird heaven. Buy Blue Velvet [Blu-ray].
Fanny and Alexander (1982): Semi-autobiographical drama from sometimes weird director Ingmar Bergman about a boy who grows unhappy when his widowed mother re-marries a stern bishop. Though it’s perhaps not the Swedish director’s weirdest, there are fantasy elements, a nephew who is a woman, and blurred realities. The Criterion Collection fits the five hour television cut, the three hour theatrical cut, and a host of extras on 3 Blu-rays (which are currently cheaper to purchase than the 5 disc DVD set). Buy Fanny and Alexander [The Criterion Collection Blu-ray].
The Fisher King (1991): Terry Gilliam pic about a homeless man (Robin Williams) who believes he’s a medieval knight errant searching for the Holy Grail doesn’t reach the bizarrist heights of the director’s Imagination Trilogy, but there are some inspired flights of fantasy mixed in with the drama (the waltz in Grand Central Station is magical). Somehow bargain bin releaser Image Entertainment obtained the rights to this, which means no special features (as a trade-off, the price is rock bottom). Buy The Fisher King [Blu-ray].
Frankenhooker (1990): Frank Henenlotter‘s tale about a man who rebuilds his decapitated fiancée using body parts from Times Square hookers, inventing supercrack in the process, is a bad taste comedy classic. A very elaborate release from Synapse featuring a restored print; all that’s missing is a button on the cover that says “wanna date?” when you press it. Buy Frankenhooker [Blu-ray].
1932’s The Island of Lost Souls is the first of three cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells “The Island of Dr.Moreau.” It is easily the best, although the 1997 attempt with Marlon Brando was not the disaster some critics claimed, and in fact was considerably better than the static, unimaginative 1977 version with Burt Lancaster.
The 1932 Island, directed by Erle C. Kenton, is rightly considered a classic, enough so that it has received the Criterion treatment for a 2011 release. This is Kenton’s sole classic. Although he was a prolific director, he was essentially a journeyman, taking whatever was handed to him and usually injecting little style. His other horror films for Universal were The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), The House Of Frankenstein (1944), and The House Of Dracula (1945), and they are all second rate, at best.
Island of Lost Souls deviates from the original story (which, predictably, prompted H.G. Wells to voice his disapproval), but the film is simply told. Like 1932’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island is a pre-Hayes code film, and it shows. Of course, both films were taken from literary sources, and that too is apparent. Lost Souls‘ literacy is due to screenwriter Philip Wylie, who also adapted Wells for James Whale‘s The Invisible Man (1933). The inimitable Charles Laughton, one of the great classic screen actors, plays Dr. Moreua with a classicist’s relish. Laughton is one of the major reasons for this film’s success, and as director Kenton shows atypical subtlety. These factors, combined with well-crafted sets and make-up, add up to a striking milieu.
Island is almost an old-dark-house genre film, except that the stranded visitor, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) ends up in a sort of kinky, contemporary Eden. God is present in the symbolic persona of Dr. Moreau and although he is the antagonist, he is a three-dimensional one. He is intelligent, crafty, and that naughty twinkle in the divine eye is ever present. God is creating again, although this time he’s attempting to correct his previous mistake by making man from the image of Eden’s animals. Eve (a Wylie addition) appears in the exotic Lota (Kathleen Burke, who notably showed up in the following year’s pre-Code Murders in the Zoo). Lota, AKA Panther Girl, alternately projects innocence and unbridled sexuality, and she is utilized by Moreau to usher forth a new Adamic age, with Parker as the new Adam. Of course, in every Eden there’s a rotten apple or two, and here it’s Parker’s abroad girlfriend (Leila Hyams, from Freaks) and the Beast Men, Moreau’s ungrateful children who hold a grudge against their creator for little things like torture, brutality, and vivisection. The Beast Men are led by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi, who is well-directed). The Sayer calls the creator out for hypocrisy and original sin. The Beast Men are well sketched here, which is a sharp contrast to the mere animalistic portraits drawn in subsequent versions. The finale is natural jolt, so much so that no other celluloid interpretation of the tale can match it. This lucidly told imaginative spin on Dr. Frankenstein’s Eden still holds up remarkably well.
As for the Criterion treatment, most welcome authoritative commentary is given by historians Gregory Mank and David J. Skall, along with filmmaker Richard Stanley (the original director of the 1997 version, who was replaced by John Frankenheimer). Stanley offers entertaining, honest insight. A little less welcome are reflections by John Landis and Devo. Production stills and the theatrical trailer are excellent supplements. This is a superb release that is essential for classic film lovers.
AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct
DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo
FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein,Gérard de Bédarieux
PLOT: Schoolboys stage a revolt at a French boarding school.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Zéro de conduite is an important historical film. It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by Lindsay Anderson (If…) With its dwarf headmaster, disappearing balls and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner. Its mildly surreal oddness nudges the needle on the weirdometer, but, despite its near-legendary status, it’s not thoroughly strange enough to make its way onto the List on the first ballot.
COMMENTS: Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films. The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29. Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.
By banning Zéro de conduite, the director’s film about an imaginary rebellion in a boys’ boarding school, for thirteen years, the French censors only augmented Vigo’s legend. From the perspective of patrons who are used to seeing political leaders openly mocked and clitorises graphically snipped off in movie theaters as they munch on popcorn, the idea of a movie with only a single “merde!’ and no violence, fetal rape, human centipedes, or even an obvious political target would be banned for over a decade is almost unimaginable. The film contains hardly audible whispers of schoolboy homosexuality, but it was suppressed not for these but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.” Vigo’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian philosophy, which pervades the film’s 44 minute running time, was too hot and subversive for 1933 sensibilities.
FEATURING: Peter Scanavino, Jason Robards III, Ana Asensio, David Thornton
PLOT: In the year 2044 people have been genetically engineered to feel perpetually happy, so
they perversely seek out illegal drugs that bring intense pain; in this society, a dealer in pharmaceutical misery stumbles upon what may be a generations old conspiracy that goes by the code name “Zenith.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: More confusing than weird, Zenith is at the same time a laudable and thought-provoking, but forced and undramatic, attempt to create a cult-y reality-bender along the lines of more organic puzzle movies like Primer.
COMMENTS: Zenith is one bewildering conspiracy movie. It creates frustration and paranoia by chopping up its narrative with lots of fast-forwards, rewinds, out-of-sequence scenes, and even episodes of déjà vu. Elisions, false clues and dead end leads increase the confusion quotient. Although the sloppiness of the story is an intentional strategy meant to put us inside the paranoid heads of the protagonists, the procedure still occasionally comes off as the director jerking the viewer around—especially when it comes to the rug-pulling conclusion, which tempts alienating the movie’s core audience. Writer/director Vladan Nikolic crafts an intricate scenario here that may please fans of “difficult” stories, but it’s more rewarding, above and beyond the plot level, to think of the movie as an examination of the conspiracy fan’s psychology. “Dumb” Jack, the pain-pill pusher (a grungy and intense Peter Scanavino), begins the story thinking of his defrocked priest father, Ed, who’s obsessed with trivia about the Illuminati and the Bilderbreg group, as a crazy old coot. But the more he watches old VHS tapes of dad’s decades-old investigations of the “Zenith” conspiracy, the more he comes to be just like him, until at the end the two men have become virtual doppelgängers. The movie suggests that it may be able to easier to get sucked into irrational conspiratorial beliefs than it seems, especially seeing as how it asks the viewer to take pleasure in following the clues and tagging along as they track down that mysterious man who, if only he can only be located and Continue reading CAPSULE: ZENITH (2010)→
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!