Tag Archives: 1973

256. AMARCORD (1973)

“The natural was not an opportunity for Fellini, material to be recorded or rearranged, but rather a constraint, like rationality, defined order, and logic were—a limit on his creativity—and that is why the natural, the narrativized, and the realistic began to disappear from Fellini’s work, at first imperceptibly, before 1960, and then markedly afterward.”–Sam Rohdie, “Amarcord: Federico of the Spirits”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël, Armando Brancia, Pupella Maggio, Luigi Rossi, Josiane Tanzilli, Maria Antonietta Beluzzi

PLOT: Amarcord documents a year in the lives of residents of an Italian coastal town (based on Fellini’s own hometown, Rimini) in the 1930s under Mussolini’s Fascist party. Titta, an adolescent boy, is the character with the most screen time, and he spends it mostly with his friends engaging in mischief and lusting after unobtainable older women. The most unobtainable of these is Gradisca, the dreamy, red-maned village beauty and the second most important character, whose eventual marriage marks the end of a chapter in the town’s history.

Still from Amarcord (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • Won the 1975 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the film was also nominated (in 1976) for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.
  • Depending on what source you believe, “amarcord” is either a Fellini neologism, or an unusual slang word from the Romagnolo dialect of Italian meaning “I remember.” Per Damian Pettigrew, it possibly derives from “amare” (“love”) + “ricordo” (“memory”) (=”fond memory”), perhaps with a touch of “amaro” (=”bitter”, for “bittersweet memory”). Or, it might be just a slurred pronunciation of the Italian phrase “io mi ricordo” (“I remember”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most mainstream movie fans remember the peacock in the blizzard, or the massive S.S. Rex passing by in the night (over, as it turns out, a sea made of cellophane). The weird-minded are more thrilled by the sight of the imaginary wedding ministered by the giant Facscist talking head made from red and white blossoms, with the girls holding up hula hoops on one side of the aisle while the boys raise their rifles on the other.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flowery Mussolini wedding; bean vendor in a harem; dwarf nun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Amarcord finds Federico Fellini fondly remembering, or deliberately misremembering, his own youth in a series of sketches that alternate between burlesque comedy, light absurdism, and total fantasy. Mainstream movie lovers sometimes see Amarcord as too flamboyant, while Fellini’s more surrealist-oriented fans often miss the delirium of Satyricon, seeing this one as too nostalgic and accessible. Amarcord admittedly isn’t Fellini’s weirdest, but as one of the most beloved works by one of the weird genre’s key directors, it’s worth your time. It skates onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the sliding-scale rule: the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to be honored.


Original U.S. release trailer for Amarcord

COMMENTS: It sounds like an outtake from “Arabian Nights” by Continue reading 256. AMARCORD (1973)

246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

Kanashimi no Beradonna

“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Eiichi Yamamoto

FEATURING: Voices of Chinatsu Nakayama, Aiko Nagayama, , Katsuyuki Itô, Masaya Takahashi

PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.

Still from Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even harder than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
  • The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
  • “Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.


U.S. release trailer for Belladonna of Sadness

COMMENTS: We a huge debt of gratitude to whoever’s idea it was Continue reading 246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: SOME CALL IT LOVING (1973)

AKA: Sleeping Beauty; Dream Castle

DIRECTOR: James B. Harris

FEATURING: Zalman King, Tisa Farrow, Carol White, Richard Pryor, Veronica Anderson, Logan Ramsey, Pat Priest, Brandy Herrod

PLOT: Based on the John Collier short story “Sleeping Beauty.” A hedonistic millionaire, entranced by a carnival act involving a girl who has been asleep for years, purchases her and brings her home.

Still from Some Call It Loving (1973)WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Far stranger than the synopsis would suggest, Some Call it Loving is a surreal, dreamlike take on relationship dramas. A precursor to the modern erotic thriller, it would make for an interesting double feature paired with Boxing Helena, or even Singapore Sling.

COMMENTSThe entire genre of the “erotic thriller”—from such highlights as 9 1/2 Weeks, the steamy cable series “Red Shoe Diaries,” and Eyes Wide Shut all the way down to the low-level late night chum on Cinemax (or Skinemax, as it was nicknamed due to its reliance on such fare)—shares primary DNA with the not-as-well-known early precursor Some Call It Loving. Lead actor Zalman King would make it a cottage industry in the 80s and 90s, co-writing and producing 9 1/2 Weeks and directing Wild Orchid, Two Moon Junction and episodes of “Red Shoe Diaries” (the series he created), among others.

King’s character here, Robert, lives in a mansion with two women, Scarlett (White) and Angelica (Anderson). The three pass the time by indulging in role-playing “games” (seducing a widow, disciplining the maid, dancing nuns) that always lead to sexual situations. The only times Robert ventures into the “real world” is when he gigs as a session player with a jazz group at a bar and has conversations with his friend Jeff (Pryor), a musician who’s fallen into hardcore junkiedom.

During one of these excursions he goes to a carnival and discovers the “Sleeping Beauty,” Jennifer (Farrow), as a sideshow attraction, drugged to remain asleep. Patrons pay for one kiss to wake the Beauty—and more, it’s strongly implied. Robert decides to purchase her to take her back with him. Robert returns with Jennifer, who is accepted into the household; when she awakens, she’s also incorporated into the game-playing. But does this lead to a Happy Ending for all?

Although is provides the seed for later erotic thrillers, Loving can’t actually be classed as one. Instead, it’s a dark, fractured fairy tale in line with its source material (John Collier’s treatment of the “Sleeping Beauty” legend). In the story, the emphasis is on the man who purchases the Beauty. That holds true in Harris’ adaptation as well, but he goes further and deeper than Collier.

At the outset, Robert appears to be a “kept” man. Scarlett seems to be the wealthy benefactor, with Angelica being a recent addition to the family, and it appears that this setup has been in effect for some time. But while some may find this to be a fantasy come true, Robert is dissatisfied. His conversations with Jeff provide him with some distraction, but Jeff’s descent insures that he won’t be around for long.  Robert’s malaise is relieved by Jennifer’s arrival, but only for a short time. At first she enjoys the company and the game-playing, but it ends up in further dissatisfaction.PryorEtiquette Pictures, the uptown division sub-label of Vinegar Syndrome, made Loving their debut release in a Blu-Ray/DVD package in Summer 2015.  Done in a 2K restoration from the original negative, this is the best Loving has looked in any of its prior home video releases. Numerous extras are included, such as a commentary with writer/director Harris, a featurette on the making of the film, one on cinematographer Mario Tosi (Carrie, The Stunt Man), and outtakes featuring actress Millie Perkins, whose role was cut from the finished film.

Writer/director James B. Harris was ‘s producing partner for his early films The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita.

CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

AKA Santa Fe Satan

DIRECTOR: Patrick McGoohan

FEATURING: Richie Havens, Lance LeGault, , Tony Joe White, Season Hubley, Bonnie Bramlett, Delaney Bramlett

PLOT: An adaptation of “Othello,” set in the Santa Fe, NM area in the summer of 1967. Traveling preacher Othello (Richie Havens) comes across a remote commune in the desert and eventually settles there, becoming the defacto leader and falling in love with and marrying Desdemona. This does not sit well with Iago, who plans revenge on Othello, manipulating everyone around him, including his wife Emila.

Still from Catch My Soul (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Catch My Soul is definitely of an artifact of its time, and the merging of Shakespeare and gospel makes for a unique interpretation, but it’s a pretty straightforward presentation of the basic story.

COMMENTS: Catch My Soul was an intriguing moment in the careers of everyone involved. It was the only feature film directed by Patrick McGoohan, who’d proved himself earlier directing episodes of “Danger Man,” “Secret Agent” and “The Prisoner”; it featured the acting debuts of singers Richie Havens and Tony Joe White, as well as performances from cult favorites Susan Tyrell and Lance LeGault; and on top of all of that, the cameraman was Conrad Hall of “The Outer Limits,” In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke, among others. It was based on an acclaimed stage show and with that pedigree, it should have been a memorable addition to the genre of rock musicals. Instead, Catch My Soul barely opened at all—practically ignored by the public at large and garnering scathing reviews, the film disappeared from theaters only to reappear a year later under the title Santa Fe Satan, and was as successful under that title as it was under the original. The film then pretty much disappeared from view, never released on VHS and barely mentioned at all. McGoohan disowned Soul shortly before release and barely talked about it, except for one mention in a mid-90’s interview. For a long time the only available evidence of the film’s existence was the soundtrack LP, the most praised element of the film, which could be still be found in used vinyl bins even well into the 2000s. It was long thought to be a lost film, until the recent unearthing of a 35mm print in North Carolina and the subsequent discoveries of a 16mm print and the camera negative found in the bowels of 20th Century Fox studios.

Now that Soul has been rediscovered and can be seen with some 40 years of perspective, it seems that the initial reviews were too harsh and mean spirited. Far from being a hippie-themed train wreck, the film is an interesting curiosity showing how Shakespeare’s work is constantly adapted to reflect contemporary times. It’s especially fitting that McGoohan was the one to direct this, since he starred earlier as an Iago-inspired character in another musically-oriented Continue reading CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

LIST CANDIDATE: CHARMS (1973)

AKA Grassland, Hex, The Shrieking

DIRECTED BY: Leo Garen

FEATURING: , , Gary Busey, Christina Raines (as Tina Herazo), Hilarie Thompson, Robert Walker Jr., Dan Haggerty, Doria Cook, Mike Combs

PLOT: A group of WWI veterans motorcycling through the plains of Nebraska encounter two sisters, daughters of a Native-American shaman. When the antics of the gang get a bit rowdy, one of the sisters hexes the group and the members die in strange ways.

Hex4

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: See the “Comments” for the argument… but if the ad campaigns below (click to enlarge) don’t convince you, then you’re obviously not into Weird Hippie Westerns.

grassland hex


COMMENTS: Despite the plot description, Charms is not quite the undiscovered horror gem that some might hope for.  In fact, it pretty much defies any sort of expectation that one would take from its logline—which, considering the history of this film, is quite fitting. This movie has gone through several title changes. Originally called Grassland (it had a short debut under that title), it was retitled Hex and got a second brief release in the U.S. and in Europe under that new name. Then it was pulled from release and shelved by its studio, 20th Century Fox, and went relatively unseen until the early 90s, when it was released on VHS and LaserDisc under the title The Shrieking. It turns up on DVD in 2006 under its current moniker.

The screenplay was originally written in the 1960s by Doran William Cannon (Skidoo, Brewster McCloud), who sold it to Leo Garen, an off-Broadway theater director who moved into film and television. (Garen was an associate producer of Norman Mailer’s 1970 experiment Maidstone, and later co-wrote 1986’s Band of the Hand). Garen went through several drafts with screenwriters Vernon Zimmerman (Fade to Black, Unholy Rollers) and Steve Katz (“The A-Team”); Garen and Katz were eventually credited with the screenplay while Cannon and Zimmerman got story credit.

That’s quite a mish-mash, and the film certainly shows signs of too many cooks in the kitchen… but ultimately, its largest flaw (and also its charm, get it?) is that it’s a product of its time, when artistic amalgamations were encouraged to bring in the Youth Audience (who made Easy Rider and its ilk box-office successes). And while Charms is not a great film, it can certainly be argued that it is a weird one.

Still from CharmsAt first the film appears to be a period Western when the two sisters Oriole (Herazo) and Acacia (Thompson) are seen loading up a wagon to pick up supplies from the nearest town. When they see a group of motorcyclists crossing the prairie, it’s a dissociation from expectations that this will be a typical Western, which is topped by another dissociation that takes place at the climax of the film. The tone varies so much from comedy (the gang’s adventure in town, involving racing a local with a very early precursor to the ‘hot rod’) to terror (the hexing) that it can’t really be said to be a horror film. It’s a rather laid back (seriously—there’s not a lot of action here, and an extended sequence where one of the sisters introduces the bikers to “loco weed”) story of two groups of characters: a group of WW1 “young veterans” tooling around looking for kicks (the Easy Rider influence) and of two sisters with mystic powers, one light and the other dark.

Ultimately this melding of European artistic sensibility with a straightforward commercial premise doesn’t quite work as well as one would hope, as borne out by Fox not really knowing what the hell they paid for and shelving the film after two brief releases didn’t work out. But there are some tasty elements present, including the cast… anything featuring Carradine, Glenn and Busey as bikers at the start of their careers is definitely worth a look. The cinematography by Charles Rosher (3 Women) is also noteworthy and provides some beautifully haunting moments.

The budget release DVD can probably still be found on auction sites like eBay,  and the film can be viewed via Amazon Instant Video.

LIST CANDIDATE: A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1973)

La nuit des étoiles filantes; Christina, Princess of Eroticism [alternate director’s cut]

DIRECTED BY: , (additional footage)

FEATURING: Christina von Blanc,  , Britt Nichols, Anne Libert, Jess Franco, Paul Muller

PLOT: A beautiful young girl who has been raised in boarding school in England returns to her fathers’ chateau in France after his death and is introduced to her bizarre (and horny) relatives.

Still from A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The recently deceased (2013) Jesus Franco was a curious artiste: he had an idiosyncratic talent, but he was focused on churning out sex and horror movies so quickly (201 credited features spread over 56 years) that almost all his work inevitably has a half-baked feel about it. His occult obsessions, the value he affords imagery over reason, and the ramshackle nature of his methods tended to produce movies that are at least a little bit weird. Most of these products, however, are also shoddy, boring exercises in exploitation with only a few moments of inspiration. Virgin is, perhaps, his most sustained and atmospheric work, and if a Franco film deserves a place somewhere on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made, I have yet to come across a better candidate than this one.

COMMENTS: Christina, the titular virgin among the living dead, immediately tells us she “feels like she’s in a strange dream” as a mute chauffeur drives her to her deceased father’s chateau to meet her strange relatives. This is a not-too-subtle hint of what’s to come. Although many of Franco’s movies were incoherent and filled with hallucinatory scenes, Virgin is perhaps his most dreamlike film. It’s filled with strange moments, like a funeral where the family chants a mangled Latin hymn while a cousin paints her toenails and Uncle Howard accompanies them on organ, cigarette dangling from his mouth—the entire bunch is bored, as if this is something they do every Saturday night to pass the time. The other thing they do to pass time is have lots of sadomasochistic sex, including one couple who plays a lesbian-necrophile-vampire sex game with scissors. The female cast is sexy and attractive, but star Christina von Blanc is an absolutely gorgeous creature with big blue-grey eyes and porcelain skin. She’s not a completely vapid actress, either, and it’s a shame that she only has a small handful of appearances in softcore and exploitation films to her name.

There is a running thread about Christina’s relationship to her deceased father, whose ghost she encounters; and there are many vague warnings from others for her to leave this chateau, without anyone directly cluing her in on the fact that everyone inside is dead (that’s not really a spoiler, since it’s pretty much right there in the title). However, while there is a plot, Virgin is mostly a succession of mood pieces and odd scenes (e.g. Christina discovering bats in her bed, Christina wandering in on family members having perverted sex, Christina finding an ebony dildo sitting on her floor) that could almost be played in any order. Distributors took advantage of the episodic nature of the film to splice in extra footage as needed to create variant versions. A (rather lame) outdoor orgy scenes was shot to make an even hotter version for the sex-film crowd. More notably, in the early 1980s vampire specialist Jean Rollin was hired to film a ten-minute hallucination with the dead rising from their graves, shot with an obvious stand-in wearing Christina’s white nightgown, to market the movie as a zombie film in order to capitalize on the fad for Dawn of the Dead ripoffs. (The result was retitled Zombie 4: A Virgin Among the Living Dead). Shot in a similar but distinct occult style, with no dialogue and a much thicker soundtrack, Rollin’s addition literally plays like a dream-within-a-dream, and though purists may hate it, it actually adds to the patchwork surrealism quality of Franco’s movie. Still, the most unforgettable image comes from Franco himself: the hanged man, who appears to Christina several times, including a mystical moment where he glides backwards along a forest path as she advances towards him, mouth agape and eyes wide with wonder.

Redemption Video’s 2013 release may be titled “A Virgin Among the Living Dead,” but actually the primary version of the film they provide is the Christina, Princess of Eroticism cut. That is the edit that plays by default, and the one that includes a surprisingly serious and in-depth commentary track from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas. To view the better-known Virgin Among the Living Dead cut (which is substantially identical but includes the Rollin-shot sequences) you must select it from the extras. Also included as extras are the five minutes of “extra erotic footage” appended to early versions of the movie and three featurettes, one of which is an interview with Franco. Most of us old-timers never dreamed a day would come when we’d see a Criterion Collection quality edition of a Jess Franco movie, but here it is.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of Franco’s best, a terrific tone poem that’s reminiscent of a David Lynch crossed with a Hammer film.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joseph Kaufmann, Beverly Hope Atkinson

PLOT: The life of an unemployed underground cartoonist who lives with his shrewish mother and mobbed-up dad and lusts after a saucy Nubian bartender, laid down in a mixture of animation and live action.

Still from Heavy Traffic (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: There’s not much of a story, and what plot there is turns needlessly nasty, but as a series of visual experiments Heavy Traffic is a success. Underground animator Ralph Bakshi is an important and very odd innovator with a cult following, and at least one of his films probably should make the List—is this semi-autobiographical tale the chosen one?

COMMENTS: With its brutal violence, casual sex, and animated floppy bits, today we would call Heavy Traffic “edgy” and reward it with a post-midnight slot on the Cartoon Network. But in 1973, this seamy peep-show tour of 1970s Manhattan was scandalous, nearly obscene stuff (Variety‘s dismissive review called it “a blatant example of hardcore pornography.”) Ralph Bakshi’s underground comic on film is emphatically not hardcore pornography; the moral tone is a lot lower and more misogynistic than Deep Throat. Traffic is more like a Tijuana Bible animated by the team behind “Fat Albert” while they passed around doobies. The story begins in live action as a young man plays a pinball machine; we then see his reflections and fantasies about his real life portrayed in grotesque cartoon form. Dad is a low-level Italian gangster out to bust the waterfront unions; Mom is a Jewish housewife whose only pleasures in life are feeding her son and clunking her philandering husband on the head with a frying pan. Young Michael Corleone (yes, the protagonist is named Michael Corleone) attempts to escape the agitation of his home life by drawing, but the world outside his window is hardly any better than the bedlam in his apartment. The local gang of greasy toughs tries to get him to lose his virginity with the neighborhood slut, but he accidentally knocks her off the rooftop. “She had it comin’,” he quips, which inspires the goombahs who put him up to it into frenzy of violent hilarity that ends with them beating each other bloody with chains and knives. That’s okay, because Michael really has the hots for Carole, a foxy black bartender in a halter top and low-slung bell bottoms. When she loses her job halfway through the movie, a plot finally develops as Michael works up the courage to offer to let her share his bedroom, a plan his racist dad doesn’t much like. The interracial couple strikes out together to make it in the big city, but when Michael fails to sell his blasphemous comic about a post-apocalyptic world of garbage worshipers, they turn to tricks to make ends meet. Carole lures johns into a hotel room and a suddenly vicious Michael caves their heads in with a lead pipe. Michael starts as a good kid, but only out of timidness; in his own fantasies, he corrupts himself. The ending is downbeat and jaded, but there’s a hopeful live-action coda that also suggests that the real city is almost as weird as Michael’s imaginary metropolis. With its multi-ethnic, grossly caricatured cavalcade of pimps, hos, burnouts, gangsters, transvestites, and amputee bouncers, New York City circa 1973 is the most fully-rounded character in Heavy Traffic; but it’s the movie’s visual invention that’s the star. Colorful cartoons are layered on top of footage of the real city in all its grungy greyness, while the film stock is often tinted, solarized, or otherwise transformed. The drawings are Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoon quality, but are inventively grotesque and sometimes even surreal (as when Jesus hops by on a cross to rat out Michael’s dad to a bullet ridden Godfather who’s just finished slurping a bowl of pasta peppered with tiny people). Devoted more to alienating bluenoses and earning its X rating by any means possible than to character development, Heavy Traffic may not be a deep and thoughtful movie, and it may not be the feel-good hit of 1973, but it is an utterly unique, nasty vision that is occasionally capable of astounding you with its excesses.

Bakshi had pitched the idea for Heavy Traffic to producer Steve Krantz, but the idea was considered  uncommercial. After Bakshi’s had a hit with the 1972 X-rated animated feature Fritz the Cat, Traffic got the green light. Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray earlier this year, although the release contained no special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bakshi’s style is completely over the top here, he’s running full steam ahead into material so surreal and so mind bendingly bizarre that you can’t help but get pulled in.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1973)

DIRECTED BY: James MacTaggart

FEATURING: Sarah Sutton, Brenda Bruce, June Taylor, Judy Parfitt, Freddie Jones, Geoffrey Bayldon, Richard Pearson, Raymond Mason, Anthony Collin, Douglas Milvain

PLOT: On a boring, snowy afternoon, young Alice discovers that she can walk right through the large mirror over her fireplace; there, she finds herself in a parallel universe, competing in a life-size chess game ruled over by the Red and White Queens, and meeting such strange characters as Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Still from Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even though this is actually one of the better film or television adaptations of the “Alice” books, it’s extremely low budget and bare-bones, shot-on-videotape look prevents the visuals from getting as wild or fantastical as they might be.

COMMENTS: Although most filmed versions of Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) include elements of his sequel “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” (1871), this production is one of just three or four adaptations of the second book standing alone. Some consider “Through the Looking Glass” to be the better of the two “Alice” tales, being simultaneously stranger and more sentimental than its predecessor. Aired by the BBC on Christmas Day 1973, this trip through the mirror really looks like a 40-year-old television show; that is to say, the budget is rock bottom. The lack of fancy special effects means that this is basically all (brilliant) dialogue all the time, which may strike some as boring. For those who have read the novel, however, this is actually one of the few adaptations that is genuinely amusing (at least in fits and starts), as opposed to just odd. During the sequence depicting the “Jabberwocky” monster, for instance, the combination of threadbare effects (the monster resembles a sock puppet) and gesticulating, posing actors, renders the silliness almost -esque, which seems to have been intentional. The lack of big name actors also makes this version somewhat unusual, since most other “Alice” productions are chock-full of luminaries (the biggest names here did their notable work later, Red Queen Judy Parfitt in 1995’s Dolores Claiborne and Humpty Dumpty Freddie Jones in ‘s The Elephant Man and Dune). The performers (including future “Doctor Who” sidekick Sarah Sutton, who looks about eleven years old here) stand in front of primitive blue screen backgrounds that resemble John Tenniel’s original book illustrations, and generally have a fine old time, particularly Jones, who is basically just playing a giant head. This is also the only “Looking Glass” I’ve seen where the White King (Richard Pearson) is more memorable than the White Queen (Brenda Bruce). The droll performances, including Geoffrey Bayldon’s unexpectedly acerbic White Knight, almost make up for the shoestring production values in this 74-minute program (not 66 minutes, as it says on the box). There are flaws to be sure: the calamitous dinner party finale is nowhere near as crazy as its counterpart in Hollywood’s 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, for example.  But although this production is unlikely to please the kids, it’s a surprisingly pleasant experience for oldsters who’ve been raised on the original books.

Since this is a DVD of a little-known television program, the disc has no extras and is presented in mono sound. The image, while a little soft, looks presentable enough for a video that has probably been sitting in the BBC vaults for four decades.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Very free and dreamlike at times… . The pacing is strange, but then, so is the story being told so somehow that seems appropriate even if in some ways it does hurt the movie. All in all, as dated as it is and as stagey as it is, this is worth tracking down simply because it’s quite an effective take on the book and one that treats the subject matter seriously and without the need for parody of or modernizing of the original text.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973)

AKA The Last Days of Man on Earth

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jon Finch, Jenny Runacre, Sterling Hayden

Still from The Final Programme (1973)

PLOT: Scientific genius, billionaire playboy, rock star, and international man of mystery Jerry Cornelius (no relation whatsoever to Buckaroo Banzai, though it’s probably not coincidental that he has the same initials as Jesus Christ) searches for a computer programme written by his recently deceased father which will somehow create the new Messiah: a self-replicating hermaphrodite destined to breed the superior race which will replace mankind. A lot of confusing, post-psychedelic, very 1973 stuff happens, but of course in the end he finds it. And then he turns into a gorilla.

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: It’s dull!

COMMENTS: This movie is very difficult to see. It doesn’t seem to be available on DVD anywhere for less than $100, and since I have no intention of paying that much (or indeed anything) to watch this clunker again, I’ll have to review it from memory. However, since I did catch it on the big screen at my local arthouse cinema a couple of years ago, I’ve probably seen it much more recently than most of the people reading this.

Here’s the thing. Most difficult-to-see films are difficult to see for legal reasons; usually they’re banned, or at least highly controversial. The Final Programme is difficult to see because so few people care about it that it’s not worth releasing on DVD. But its very unavailability has given it a totally undeserved cult status, which is why the few copies on the market sell for insane prices to people who think they want them. Ladies and gents, a word in your ear. Don’t get too excited about this movie, because when you finally do get to see it, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. And if you paid $100 for the privilege, you will not be a happy bunny!

The first problem with this movie is its leading man. Jon Finch is famous for starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s last (and most definitely not his best) film, Frenzy, and for appearing in a couple of Hammer horrors. He also would have been the guy whose chest exploded in Alien, if he hadn’t had to drop out due to health problems. So, a perfectly decent actor, but not exactly A-list (and by the way, he died on 28 December 2012, so RIP Jon). Jerry Cornelius is supposed to be an amoral anti-hero who combines the more interesting elements of Oscar Wilde and James Bond (and Buckaroo Banzai, who hadn’t even been invented yet), and for that, you need a lot more screen presence than Jon Finch could muster. Rumor has it that  turned down the role on the grounds that it was “too weird.” Given his performance in Performance, I can only assume that what he really meant was: ”This script sucks, and I can’t be bothered to argue.”

Michael Moorcock also thought the script sucked, and since he wrote the 1969 novel on which the film was based, he presumably knew what he was talking about. His outrageously decadent protagonist’s screen incarnation comes across as being a bit naughty and cheeky: there’s absolutely no sense that this man is either genuinely dissipated or the slightest bit dangerous. Which is especially unfortunate, given that it was only two years since A Clockwork Orange had shown us exactly what an amoral yet strangely charismatic anti-hero is supposed to be like (curiously, Patrick Magee is in both films).

Many elements of the film now considered “weird” were actually standard for any fairly expensive fantasy or sci-fi film made at that time. Yes, Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Recommended

Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra; AKA The Hour-glass Sanitorium; The Sandglass

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Jan Nowicki, Jozef Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek, Ludwik Benoit, Mieczyslaw Voit

Still from The Hourglass Sanitorium (1973)

PLOT: Adapted from several stories by Bruno Schulz, the movie follows Joseph (Nowicki) as he travels by train to a sanitarium to see his dead father. At this particular institution, time is altered, so his father can still be alive within, while in the outside world his death has already occurred; and while waiting for his father’s death to catch up, Joseph appears to go through incidents in his own past, as time curls in on itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Surreal and dream-like, this is probably one of the most artistically successful films of its type—a picturesque journey into death.

COMMENTS: Wojciech Jerzy Has’ two best known films are also the only ones readily available to Western audiences, that other film being The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both are challenging adaptations of literary works thought to be unfilmable. These two movies alone would make impressive bookends in any filmmaker’s career, yet these were made almost a decade apart, and Has’ other films reportedly retain a similar level of quality.

Sanitorium is visually sumptuous, due to the cinematography of Witold Sobocinski and the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. Viewers who are attracted to the visual artistry of  will find much to like and admire here, though the similarity ends there—while Gilliam is no stranger to dark themes in his works, even in the darkest times, he leaves a small light on. Sanitorium doesn’t allow even that minor level of comfort.

The opening image of the film—a silhouette of a bird in mid-air flight, yet seemingly suspended in place–is probably the most potent metaphor for the journey that Joseph takes. Essentially it’s a metaphoric traverse through life to its inevitable end—death—and also an observation of the same journey of an entire culture, in this case the Jews in Europe prior to the start of World War II. While there is no explicit or obvious symbolism present, no swastikas or any mention of the rise of Nazism, the film supports that reading. As Josef goes through various incidents in his childhood, we see the rich life of the community in prosperous times, and as time and decay progresses, so does that community. The last glimpse we see is Joseph witnessing  an exodus of people from town—from what is never specified, although one can surmise, if one knows history.

Sanitorium doesn’t spell itself out for the audience, and that may be the biggest hurdle for viewers, who will either overcome it or throw up their hands in frustration. We go along for the mad journey with Joseph, and the movie makes no concession to the viewer whatsoever. It is the kind of film that yields rewards with multiple viewings, and it probably helps to know Bruno Schulz and something about his work.

Unlike The Saragossa Manuscript, Sanitorium never got an official Region 1 DVD release. The UK DVD company  Mr. Bongo has issued a restored version—“restored” in this context meaning a digital remastering under the supervision of cinematographer Sobocinski. The disc is a Region 0 PAL release, so it should be playable on most computers and some (hacked) DVD/Blu-ray players—check your specs.

Journey to the Underworld – an essay by Steve Mobia with an interpretation of the film, and mention of Has’ other films.

www.schulzian.net – site featuring translations of Schulz’s stories and links.

Wikipedia entry

IMDb entry