Tag Archives: 1974

CAPSULE: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Peckinpah

FEATURING: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández

PLOT: Bennie enjoys a low-key existence as a pianist in Mexico City until he seeks a reward for proof of Alfredo Garcia’s death; Garcia’s head causes unimaginable trouble for Bennie and his friends as thugs converge on it to collect the bounty.

Still from Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The ubiquitous South-of-the-Border heat eventually saturates the addled brains of the characters and filmmakers, but Peckinpah’s gritty classic is very much “just” a film noir entry from some decades after their heyday. Still, casual conversations about culpability and forgiveness with a rotting head in a sack isn’t something you see every day.

COMMENTS: Sam Peckinpah is regarded by many as the ultimate “bad boy” director. Held in awe by people ranging from comedian Denis Leary, film critic Roger Ebert, and even neophyte director Ryan Prows, Peckinpah’s films have a merited reputation for gritty intensity. While he won’t become a member of the esteemed 366 canon of directors, Peckinpah should be regarded as a dear friend. His scorched, nihilistic, and impressively grisly Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia comes up trumps in its genre (Post-Western-Neo-Noir?), but also veers enough into pathos-filled idiosyncrasy to warrant a good look.

The succinct plot provided above doesn’t quite do justice to the proceedings. Things start brutally enough with a dressing down (literally?) of a defiant daughter by her tyrannical father—a powerful Mexican plutocrat, complete with posse and compound. The daughter has become pregnant from relations with—you guessed it—Alfredo Garcia. His dalliance was his death warrant, and a swarm of hit-men (all eager to claim the one-million-dollars on offer) surge out of the compound to hunt him down. Two such assassins encounter our friendly neighborhood barman, Bennie (Warren Oates), and this initially bloodless series of events quickly starts to steadily ratchet up the death count as Bennie and his girl (Isela Vega) look for Garcia. The third act is, well, a series of violent punctuations punctuated themselves by little bits of philosophical musing.

As Bennie’s journey inexorably leads him to a head in a bag, so to does the flow of this review. Between a couple of dramatic scenes (a truly tragic death and a comparably tragic mass murder) we enjoy a conversation that, had it continued, might have let Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia butt its way onto the list. I don’t know if it was the film stock used or the mediocrity of the Blu-Ray transfer, but the film’s atmosphere—which was already teetering on the verge of collapse from sun stroke—becomes truly hellish. Flies fill Bennie’s beat-up Impala as a stench permeates the vehicle (almost wafting to the viewer), and through this fog of death and heat, Bennie has exchanges with the million-dollar head. Bennie chastises Alfredo, shouts at Alfredo, and bargains with Alfredo. At a roadside cantina, we wonder if the jig is up when a small boy cleaning his filthy car windows inquires about it. Bennie, cool despite it all, explains, “Cat. Dead cat. Used to belong to a friend of mine.” Ultimately, Bennie even forgives Alfredo.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is so infused with violence that most contemporary genre pictures pale in comparison. Peckinpah captures almost every slaughter with the greatest impact possible. We don’t ever see the titular character (not alive, at any rate), and his head is merely a plot device which forces us to bear witness to the lives of men and women at the bottom of the food chain and at the end of their tether. Pathos borders on bathos as Peckinpah turns the screws on the initially carefree and affable Bennie. Even in the company of its peers, it is surprising to see a movie so relentlessly cynical, particularly when this cynicism is only ever interrupted by one man’s conversation with a decomposing head.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie is some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It’s probably not a movie that most people would like, but violence, with Peckinpah, sometimes becomes a psychic ballet.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

STOCKING COAL: KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS (2014) & THE BURNING HELL (1974)

A few months back, a co-worker sent me a meme of Homer Simpson mimicking Donald Trump mimicking a handicapped reporter under the heading: “Look Marge… I’m a Christian.” If one associates Christianity with brain dead right-wing WASPs, then the only better symbol than a Homer parody would be walking caricature Kirk Cameron. In addition to his roll-on-the-floor Left Behind rapture series, Cameron, in 2014, prefiguring Trump and his Trumptards, took it upon himself to “Save Christmas” and ‘Murica from all those War-on-Christmas “Happy Holiday” and “Season’s Greetings” coffee cups (with no snowflakes, dammit).

Like all of Cameron’s movies, Saving Christmas was universally panned, which prompted the Christian entrepreneur (smelling a potential box office loss for his booming franchise) to panic. He called on “the real people” (as opposed to the sub-human critics) to give him a thumbs up: “Help me storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes,” he wrote, “all of you who love Saving Christmas – go rate it at Rotten Tomatoes right now and send the message to all the critics that WE decide what movies we want our families to see.” Kirk’s endeavor promptly backfired. Even the “real people” ripped it to pieces, which of course Cameron blamed on liberal atheists, no doubt paid off by George Soros. Now, before we dismiss this as yet another easy target: lest we forget ‘Murica elected Cameron’s triple-chinned, mentally-challenged, pedophile-conspiracy kook,  silver-spoon fed billionaire, and CINO (“Christian-in-Name-Only”) prophet to the highest office of the land in 2016. Saving Christmas is is a lump of stocking coal that ‘Murica has reaped.

The irony of Saving Christmas is that it’s the most dumbed-down, offensive, holiday killing, morally bankrupt Christmas movie ever produced, especially if one subscribes to the precepts taught by one Jesus of Nazareth. It actually embraces and endorses avarice and gluttony, and takes to task wimps who dare suggest that giving money to charity or the less fortunate is more Christ-like than spending money on oneself (apparently, the filmmakers never read the Lazarus and the Rich Man parable). Cameron’s movie, directed by co-star and fellow disgusting human being Darren Doane, does a Linus in reverse, proclaiming how good and Christian materialism actually is because, ya know, Jesus doesn’t really want peace on earth to men of good will, he wants us to to gorge on the day we celebrate his birthday. (Cameron’s head-scratching thesis insists that holiday materialism is good because God, taking over Christmas, became material). Having the chutzpah to proclaim that his masterpiece puts Christ back in Christmas, Continue reading STOCKING COAL: KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS (2014) & THE BURNING HELL (1974)

LIST CANDIDATE: DOWN AND DIRTY DUCK (1974)

AKA Dirty Duck; Cheap (working title)

DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson

FEATURING: Voices of , , Robert Ridgely, Cynthia Adler

PLOT: Miquetoast Willard works at an insurance company where he hopes to woo a coworker, but crossing paths with a duck leads him on a psychedelic journey of sexual awakening and New Age enlightenment.

Still from Down and Dirty Duck (1974)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Animated anti-establishment Yippie circlejerks are obligated to be at least a little weird, but even within that category, the Duck soars above the competition (especially Fritz the Cat). It is much more surreal than it had to be, and for that, we thank it.

COMMENTS: Duck starts with an introduction by a used-car-salesman-cum-host of the late night movie variety, complete with funny animal sidekick—a reference to 1970s TV staples such as Cal Worthington, for those of you who never lived on the left coast. The dated cultural references get harder and harder to explain from here, but considering our protagonist, a human insurance investigator named Willard, starts his day by sniffing a potted flower which morphs into a woman’s head he kisses and a set of boobs he motorboats, being misunderstood wasn’t exactly this movie’s chief phobia.

Willard has a rich fantasy life to make up for his wimpy demeanor. When brushed aside by a horny couple at the bus stop, he morphs into King Kong and strips the girl naked and hold her in his palm. Next, he turns his abusive boss into a basketball for some Harlem Globetrotters tricks. There’s a scene like this every few minutes, to the point where we lose track of what’s going on in the story and what’s just another of Willard’s flights of fancy. But anyway, we’re pretty sure the plot is that Willard has a crush on a girl at work and plans to ask her out, but will be thwarted by this cruel universe which constantly taunts him with lascivious female bodies that he cannot have.

But what was this movie about again? Oh, yes, a duck. A duck with a Ouija-board-reading owner with a gig at a tattoo parlor. Willard visits them regarding the woman’s life insurance claim (she is not, in fact, dead) and is mistaken for a wizard from a prophecy. He denies it, but doesn’t help his case when she drops dead at a harsh word from him. But this gives the insurance man and the duck a great excuse to hit the road on a voyage of sexual awakening through the psychedelic landscape of 70s Americana. The duck interrupts Willard’s guilt trip by popping out of a toilet to hand Willard his robe and wizard hat. While Willard is devoid of actual magical powers, the movie around him just gets more free-form and dreamlike. Scenery drops in from behind, new characters sprout from the ground, nonsensical conversations occur, then on to the next scene. We’re pretty sure they go to a brothel. They get stranded in the desert for a long time and encounter lesbians and a cop doing the most hilarious John Wayne impression ever filmed. And then there’s that ending, as if your head weren’t tied in enough knots already.

At some point, you have to give up trying to make sense of anything, turn off your brain, and accept that this is an extended Flo & Eddie musical with animation that hits the mark between ’s photo manipulation montages and the X-rated side of “Sergeant Pepper.” Except even the animation shifts, between flowing body parts in Freudian jests that would do proud, to crude scribbles that even a preschooler would discard. Anything goes! If this movie sent just one hippie on a bad acid trip screaming naked from the theater, then it did its job and wanted for no more. We get a cute little reference to Volman’s musical roots in both The Turtles and The Mothers of Invention, which fits perfectly because Down and Dirty Duck reads mostly like an extended act break skit one might find on one of ‘s “You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore” albums. On the whole, it’s talented, funny people messing around mostly to please themselves, so sit back and enjoy the ride. If you happen to twist up a doobie to keep your mind limber enough to appreciate the trip, it’s certainly allowed.

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Down and Dirty Duck – Cinema Snob – This movie would barely be known today if the Cinema Snob hadn’t rediscovered it for Generation YouTube (not safe for work)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Dirty Duck is memorable for many reasons, including Swenson’s surreal and abstract sequences (hand-drawn/cut animated scenes over collages), but mostly for its offensive, highly sexual, satirical and slapstick tone, which was apparently wasn’t for everyone, even in the early 70s, when people were a little more open-minded.”–Bryan Thoman, nightflight.com

1974 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA, IT’S ALIVE, AND LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES

1974 brought a cult movie smorgasbord, beginning with Andy Warhol’s Dracula (AKA Blood for Dracula, directed by ), which is better known than the previous year’s Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. It again stars (as the bloodsucker) and (as the servant Mario), along with famed Italian director Vitorrio De Sica as a patriarch with four daughters who need marrying off. Kier’s count is sick, depressed, and bored to tears. He needs virgin blood, but post-sexual revolution, that’s not easy to come by. Three of the four candidates turn out to be sloppy seconds, making the Count even sicker. When he finally does find daughter four to be a virgin, the meddlesome Mario saves her in the predictable way, with Dracula diving to the floor to lap up popped cherry sauce.

Still from Blood for Dracula (1974)Knowingly misogynistic, with a splendid score (Claudio Gizzi), an over-the-top finale that puts some of the sillier Hammer vampire dispatches to shame, and a cameo, Blood for Dracula is far from perfect, but endures as a cult oddity.

‘s Phantom of the Paradise is probably the best film based on the Gaston Leroux novel. It’s greatness lies in its refusal to put the original narrative on a pedestal, which, despite what a certain hack composer named Webber claims, is not that good anyway. It quickly secured its cult standing, but is often considered to be under the shadow of 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both are delightful, but if it’s an either/or situation, go with De Palma. His is the better film.

The Night Porter (directed by Liliana Cavani ) was to 1974 what Fifty Shades Of Grey was to 2015, the difference being the S&M relationship here is between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the Jewess he tortured in the concentration camp (). It’s arthouse reputation secured a strong following for years, and it was eventually released on home video via the Criterion Collection. It wasn’t unanimously loved; Roger Ebert was among its critics, in an almost infamous review.

Rampling co-starred  in her second 1974 cult movie with ‘s Zardoz, appearing alongside in a ponytail and diaper. It’s yet another 1974 entry that made our official weird movie list.

Hyped as a soft core porn parody of “Flash Gordon,” Flesh Gordon (co-directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm) was another immediate cult hit, although it’s largely forgotten today. More sophomoric parody than porn, it has period charm as a fan film with Continue reading 1974 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA, IT’S ALIVE, AND LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES

267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

“The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”–Aunt Ida, Female Trouble

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Michel Potter

PLOT:  Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport runs away from home, gets knocked up by a rapist, and turns to a life of crime to help pay for the daughter she hates. After a brief and disastrous marriage, Dawn is scarred for life after her ex-husband’s Aunt Ida throws acid in her face. Transformed into a freak celebrity by a salon-owning couple, Dawn embarks upon a murder spree before an inevitable trip to the electric chair.

Still from Female Touble (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shot on a $25,000 budget, Female Trouble is puke poet laureate John Waters’ riotous followup to his midnight cult hit, Pink Flamingos. Waters capitalized on the previous film’s surprise success and advertised Female Trouble as having the returning cast of Pink Flamingos. It is the second entry in what Waters later called his “Trash Trilogy,” which begins with Flamingos and ends with Desperate Living.
  • After acting in Waters’ films for twelve years, this was David Lochary’s last screen appearance. He was cast for 1977’s Desperate Living but bled to death as the result of a fall while under the influence of PCP shortly before filming began.
  • Waters’ tagline for Female Trouble was “A high point in low taste.”
  • Divine based part of her portrayal of Dawn on her nightclub act, during which she threw mackerel at the audience and claimed to be a mass murderer.
  • Female Trouble was dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, of the Manson Family, who partly inspired the film’s theme of “crime is beauty.” The wooden toy helicopter in the film’s credits was Watson’s gift to Waters after a prison visit. (Waters later said that he regretted the dedication).
  • Alfred Eaker‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dawn jumping up and down on a trampoline, wearing a mohawk and a sparkly pantsuit, at her big performance art showcase.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Divine rapes Divine; chewed umbilical cord; Auntie in a birdcage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An expressionistic nightmare set in the hell of East Coast suburbia highlighting the rise and fall of a 300 pound transvestite mass murderer, Female Trouble reaches its first climax of lunacy when Dawn chops off Aunt Ida’s hand, locks her up in an oversized birdcage, and goes on her daughter for joining the Hare Krishnas. A second bouncing-off-the-wall climax follows when Dawn murders audience members as performance art before going down in a blaze-of-glory finale that could compete with Cody Jarrett blowing himself up or Tony Montana rat-a-tat-tatting away after being riddled with bullets. Accompanying all that is a beauty myth from the bowels of a white trash hell that would send Naomi Wolf screaming for sanctuary. Female Trouble is even more subversive than Pink Flamingos.


Short clip from Female Trouble (1974)

COMMENTS: On the surface, Female Trouble may appear to be Continue reading 267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

CAPSULE: PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (1974)

DIRECTED BY: Francesco Barilli

FEATURING: Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Mario Scaccia, Jo Jenkins, Daniela Barnes, Orazio Orlando

PLOT: A wealthy, workaholic bachelorette chemist begins seeing visions of a lady in black, and a young blond girl; is she going mad or being tricked (or both)?

Still from The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its hysterical hallucinations and hints of witchcraft, plus a grisly surprise ending, a case could be made for certifying this quality offbeat occult giallo; but ultimately, it falls into the category of “you gotta draw the line somewhere.”

COMMENTS: In his interview comments accompanying the Raro Video release, writer/director Francesco Barilli acknowledges The Perfume of the Lady in Black’s debt to , but you’d probably sniff the lingering scent of Repulsion early on even without that admission (not to mention a whiff of Rosemary’s Baby, too). Perfume is part of a line of 60s and 70s horrors playing on the anxieties of young single working women. Thanks to sexual liberation, a class of working women living on their own without a live-in male protector was a relatively new phenomenon, and for all the necessary freedom, the fact is that it can be scary to be a woman in a man’s world. Lone females have more to fear than solo males: they fear all the same things men do, plus, they have to fear men. Silvia is competent enough to manage a chemistry lab, but she can’t trust her surroundings, her neighbors, strangers who stare at her on the street, or her even own senses in the dead of night. Whenever she’s alone, she’s endangered, and returns to sanity only when her boyfriend rushes to her side.

Perfume takes place in that lush giallo world, an existence full of tennis dates, elegant silk robes, and apartment courtyard’s with Roman fountains. The art direction is sumptuous, and at times a little outrageous, such as the jungle mural that hovers above Silvia’s friend’s bedpost. Surely such bourgeois elegance can only be there to cover up the stench of decadence. Mimsy Farmer, while not star material, is a treat in this role, constantly frightened and almost reluctantly sexy. The plot seems to be being made up as it goes along. It turns out that there are really two storylines, one of which involves oblique divulged secrets from Silvia’s childhood. The dual plots are mashed together, which produces extra confusion, but less satisfaction, since there’s not a single resolution, and nothing in particular to tie them together. Highlights include a ghostly little girl, “Alice in Wonderland” references, and a séance with a blind psychic (which may be the most giallo scenario ever). The ending is a genuine shock surprise, leaving a strong enough impression to make you forget the somewhat tedious early moments.

Raro Video upgraded Perfume to Blu-ray in 2016. The disc includes an interview with writer/director Barilli (which might be cut down from a longer one included on the DVD release) and a bonus short film, the 23-minute “The Knight Errant,” a shot-on-video variation on Death Takes a Holiday with a couple of surreal surprises that’s well worth a watch.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Perfume of the Lady in Black piles on the weird, somewhat to its detriment.”–Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk (2011 DVD)

CAPSULE: THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974)

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Walter Ladengast, Willy Semmelrogge

PLOT: After nearly two decades growing up in a basement cell, Kaspar Hauser is abandoned in the town square of a nearby village. Illiterate and knowing virtually no words, the man is adopted by the townsfolk, first by the town jailer and then by a local professor who finds him on display at a fair. As his awareness of this new world grows, Kaspar becomes increasingly disenchanted with his surroundings.

Still from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the story is based on an historical oddity that morphed into something of a legend, the movie structure, flow, and presentation are conventional. The tragedy of Kaspar Hauser is rather weird, but Herzog tells his tale through traditional storytelling methods.

COMMENTS: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser proves that the young Werner Herzog had the golden touch. It could be argued he single-handedly launched the volatile to art-house superstardom with the success of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Right on that movie’s heels, he cooked up a heartwarming tragedy for the then-very-unknown street performer, Bruno S. In the titular role in  Kaspar Hauser, Herzog directs the non-actor in a performance that is moving, amusing, and, most impressively, believable.

Herzog took the historical but semi-legendary story of Kaspar Hauser at face value. The movie begins, as with so many Herzog pictures, with shots of mesh-enveloped nature. As in Aguirre, an informative title card is presented to provide the viewer with background—in this case, ironically, to introduce him to the protagonist’s lack of background. Having spent all his formative years from birth locked in a dimly lit cellar, with only one man’s company (limited to feeding time and perhaps cleanings), Kaspar Hauser has no basis for experience other than four walls, a straw covered floor, bread, water, and a wheeled toy horse. For unknowable reasons, one day the captor releases Kaspar and then ditches him, standing in a daze with a letter in hand, in the center of a prosperous 19th century German town.

The truly blank slate of Kaspar allows Herzog to force the audience to observe mankind from the character’s detached perspective. The town is bewildered by Kaspar’s presence and lack of interactivity. The authorities, one of whom is an excitable clerk keen on getting everything recorded in his reports, are officious, slightly suspicious, but ultimately kind. The children of the jail keeper teach Kaspar all they can. When the town government are irked at the stranger, they force him to act as one of the “Four Riddles of the Spheres at a town fair. Kaspar engineers an escape for himself and the three other “riddles,” only to be found later in an apiary by a kindly professor. Things do get better for Kaspar, but also worse.

The movie is sprinkled with amusing moments, largely observational oddities from the unworldly Kaspar, but it is ultimately a tragedy. Throughout, Herzog’s camera digresses into gossamer fields, dunes, and water. These signature shots ably convey Kaspar’s sense of wonder, but also his detachment from the world in which he finds himself. Near the beginning, he lightly sobs to the jail keeper’s wife,  “Mother, I am so far from everything”; later, he remarks to the professor, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall.” At a sort of “coming out” party put on for a visiting prat of a nobleman, he glibly tells the assembled bourgeois gawkers that life was better for him in his cell.

Kaspar Hauser has many moments of quiet beauty to behold, and Herzog further demonstrates his mastery of his craft with this addition to his oeuvre. The reality it creates is as wondrous and sad as the reality Kaspar experiences when he finally gains his bearings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In Herzog the line between fact and fiction is a shifting one. He cares not for accuracy but for effect, for a transcendent ecstasy… The last thing Herzog is interested in is ‘solving’ this lonely man’s mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS (1974)

AKA The Cars That Eat People

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Terry Camilleri, John Meillon

PLOT: Mild-mannered Arthur survives a car crash that kills his brother and finds himself stranded in the insular, automobile obsessed town of Paris, Australia.

Still from The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its director’s last name, this one falls just a little short of “weird.”  Park The Cars That Ate Paris in the oddity yard.

COMMENTS: You could look at The Cars That Ate Paris as a psychological horror, or a semi-surreal black comedy about a fish out of water, or as a satire of Australian car culture, or even as a dramatic character study of a broken, phobic orphan desperate for acceptance. The movie even starts, rather inexplicably, with what appears to be a cigarette commercial, for further confusion. Without revealing too much, the plot revolves around the town of Paris, New South Wales, an isolated burg with a junkyard barter economy based on salvaged car parts, and Arthur, an annoyingly meek wreck survivor with an automobile phobia who finds himself stranded in a community that insists on taking him in and teaching him their way of life. There are also out-of-control teenagers in roving automobile gangs and a hospital that, given the out-of-the-way hamlet’s low population, is surprisingly stocked with brain-damaged “veggies” (of the full, half and quarter varieties).

Cars zooms back and forth between understated comedy and looming horror, constantly grinding its gears. Scenes like the one where the town’s psychiatrist/surgeon slips disturbing photos into Arthur’s Rorschach-type test have a dark-alley-of-the-mind quality to them. At other times, the movie jaunts off in a different direction, suddenly rolling into a Sergio Leone parody. The ending, quite naturally, is a violent demolition derby, complete with growling cars, wherein the entire town is trashed while costumed loonies wander the street. Cars offers a bumpy ride, and goes pretty much nowhere, but the scenery out the window can be astonishing.

Understandably, The Cars That Ate Paris was a hard movie to market. In the VHS era, it was housed in the “horror” section (sometimes under the misleading alternate title The Cars That Eat People) with a box cover that stressed the cool spikemobile and copy that suggested it was something like an Australian version of Death Race 2000. The movie got bad word-of-mouth through this mismarketing when legions of teenagers rented it expecting a fast-paced horror movie about killer cars and instead getting a thoughtful, weird little arthouse drama. Its reputation changed for the better after the Criterion Collection picked up the film, repositioning it as a cult classic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Effortlessly employing surrealist and fantasy tropes in a story that is, ultimately, never very far from the possible, Weir steers us on a dizzying journey through autophilia, survivalist politics, and the darker side of human nature.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by the Awful Dr. Orloff, who believed it to be “much, much weirder” than Picnic at Hanging Rock. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

“The reason Fox found it unwieldy — the scabrous humor about the music industry, the unhappy love story and the weirdness of some of the characters — are exactly the reasons why people love it now.”–Gerrit Graham on Phantom of the Paradise (quoted in the New York Times)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: William Finley, , , Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli

PLOT: Swan is the world’s most powerful music producer, who dreams of opening a grandiose concert venue called the Paradise, while Winslow is a composer who has created a rock cantata version of “Faust.” Swan steals Winslow’s work; while seeking revenge, an accident disfigures Winslow’s face and destroys his vocal cords. Now wearing a mask, Winslow takes up residence in the basement of the Paradise and strikes a deal with Swan to rewrite the opera for Phoenix, a female singer whom both men lust after.

Still from Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although Brian De Palma became famous for thrillers and action movies like Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible, he began his career making subversive underground comedies, and his earliest films for major studios were oddball farces. Phantom of the Paradise marks the apex of De Palma’s comedic phase; his next film would be the horror hit Carrie, following which he would largely abandon his burlesque and experimental impulses.
  • De Palma was inspired to write a satire on the commercialization of rock music when he heard a Muzak version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in an elevator.
  • Paul Williams, a successful songwriter who had penned hits for The Carpenters, wrote and performed the soundtrack (dubbing in William Finley’s singing voice). Williams was originally cast in the role of Winston, but asked to play Swan instead, and proved a natural for the role.
  • The movie was a financial flop, but Williams’ score was nominated for an Academy Award.
  • A bizarre bit of trivia: although Phantom was a box office bomb, for some reason it was immensely popular in Winnipeg, Canada, where it played screens on and off for over a year. (I like to imagine famous weird Winnipegian , who would have been about 18 at the time, was a repeat customer).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the assassination of Beef, who is killed in improbable fashion by a neon lightning bolt. To ecstatic applause from the spectacle-hungry audience. Not only is it an unforgettable sight, it’s also the moment when the operatic Phantom solidifies its weird credentials.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a wadded-up plot of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” with a bit of “Dorian Gray,” rolled up into a music biz satire ball and sprinkled with a dusting of crazy.


Edgar Wright commentary on the original trailer for Phantom of the Paradise (from Trailers from Hell)

COMMENTS: There’s a critical cliche that says that you can’t deliberately fashion a cult movie; it must be discovered. In other words, it’s the Continue reading 179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

BLAXPLOITATION ZOMBIES: SUGAR HILL (1974)

Guest review by Brandon Engel, a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.

What if a real zombie outbreak occurred during a zombie pub crawl? Imagine everyone liquored and latexed up to such a degree that nobody could differentiate the real zombies from the fake zombies. My point, I guess, is that this zombie thing has gotten out of hand.

Hearken back to a time when people were still appropriately freaked out by the living dead. Because of directors like George A. Romero, zombies became a fashionable cinematic device to address a myriad of social issues, starting in the late sixties. The films might have made more of an impression because zombies still elicited a strong reaction from viewers. Romero’s frequently remade and frequently cited Night of the Living Dead (1968), for instance, addressed the increasingly violent and sensational mass media coverage of the Vietnam war, and was notable also for featuring a black actor (Duane L. Jones) as the film’s leading man. Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero’s follow up, offered a satire of North American consumerism by having a bunch of zombies putter mindlessly around a shopping mall.

Dawn also, incidentally, also featured a black male in it’s lead (Ken Foree), and even delved thematically into race issues with the extended segment that shows how the zombie apocalypse might manifest in the projects. But a few years prior to Dawn, the blaxploitation/horror film Sugar Hill (1974) had also appropriated the zombie motif to comment on race relations and social inequities.

The film was directed by Paul Maslansky, whom some may know as producer of the Police Academy films and Return to Oz (1985).  In the film, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) is engaged to marry the owner of a lucrative Haitian-themed bar. At the beginning of the film, members of a predominantly white crime syndicate approach Sugar’s fiance. When he refuses to acquiesce to the gang’s protection racket, Sugar’s fiance is beaten to death.

Still from Sugar Hill (1974)Sugar seeks the assistance of a voodoo priestess, Mamma Maitresse (Zara Cully), who in turn summons Baron Samedi, the Voodoo Loa who presides over funerals and acts a medium between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Samedi enlists an army of Voodoo zombies to avenge Sugar’s lover’s murder. The white gangsters are picked off, one by one. One guy is fed to a pack of hogs. One guy is thrown into a coffin filled with dangerous snakes. Blaxploitation films usually depicted black characters in positions of power over the “archetypal white oppressor” character. The title character from Superfly accomplishes this by dominating the drug trade. Shaft and Cleopatra Jones were cunning law enforcement agents. Part of what makes Sugar’s story so compelling in the annals of blaxploitation/revenge films, however, is the supernatural element. The film even evokes the transatlantic slave trade directly by suggesting that Sugar’s band of voodoo zombies were all slaves transported to the United States from Guinea. So, it becomes a revenge film in a much broader sense. It’s not merely about Sugar avenging her boyfriend’s death, but she’s also avenging (symbolically, at least) the wide-scale oppression and dehumanization of her ancestors.

The film was produced by American International Pictures, who were eager to follow up on the success of their earlier blaxploitation/horror genre blenders Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream. Part of what distinguishes Sugar Hill is that it isn’t based on a piece of 19th century European literature, but is instead a more distinctly black American narrative which synthesizes elements of Voodoo iconography, fairy tales, and classic b-horror film tropes. It’s occasionally clumsy and highly stylized script offers all of the cliches that you’d hope for in a blaxploitation film.

While Sugar Hill is frequently overlooked (even by cult film fanatics), it’s now enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to midnight screenings throughout the U.S., and regular showing on ‘s El Rey Network. Vintage horror fans (especially anyone with a fondness for either blaxploitation or seventies Italian zombie films) should absolutely check this one out.