Tag Archives: 1976

300. THE TENANT (1976)

Le Locataire

“Many would attest that The Pianist is Polanski’s most personal work, given the obvious Holocaust subject matter, but look beneath the surface, and when the window curtains are drawn aside, Polanski’s The Tenant shines brightest as the work closest to his being.”–Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Melvyn Douglas, , Jo Van Fleet

PLOT: Meek clerk Trelkovsky rents an apartment in Paris that’s only available because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. He takes it upon himself to visit the woman, who has just awakened from a coma; while there, he meets Stella, a friend of the pre-deceased, with whom he embarks on an awkward romantic relationship. After the previous tenant passes Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where his odd neighbors are obsessed with keeping the grounds quiet, and finds himself slowly taking on the personality of the previous tenant.

Still from The Tenant (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Panic Movement member . Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, rewrote the main character to be a Polish immigrant rather than a Russian, and cast himself in the lead.
  • Because of its apartment setting, The Tenant is considered part of Polanski’s unofficial “apartment trilogy,” which also includes Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
  • The film was shot in English, but most of the French actors were dubbed over by American voice talent. (Polanski dubbed himself in French for that language’s version).
  • Lensed by Sven Nykvist, ‘s favorite cinematographer.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately (because as a looker he’s no Dustin Hoffman, or even ) it’s the sight of Polanski in drag, particularly as he admires himself in the mirror, hiking up his dress to reveal his garter and stockings, and concludes “I think I’m pregnant.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tooth in the wall; toilet mummy; high-bouncing head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take a novel by Surrealist writer Roland Topor and give the property to Roman Polanski to adapt and star in while he’s having an anxiety attack, sprinkle lightly with hallucinations, and you get The Tenant. It’s a little Kafka, a little Repulsion, a little Bergman, a little cross-dressing exhibition, and very weird.


Original trailer for The Tenant

COMMENTS: Trelkovsky—no first name—is an improbably quiet Continue reading 300. THE TENANT (1976)

1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

The beauty of the 1970s is its obsession with multifarious genres and trends, but the hardly means all the movies are good. A case in point is ‘s Eaten Alive, which jumps on the killer animal bandwagon started by Bruce the shark, who shows up here as a laughably fake big green scaly lizard. Naturally, Hooper taps into his own hayseed folk focus, which include Texas Chainsaw‘s tied-up Marilyn Burns, a very creepy Neville Brand, an almost unrecognizably made up Carolyn Jones, and a very kinky fellar named Buck, played by Robert Englund. Another 70s tendency, which would be unthinkable in the next decade, is the terrorization of tykes. Here, a poor little crippled girl gets to witness her doggy become gator bait. She’s further terrorized by dysfunctional parents, including a pappy lookin’ for a nonexistent eyeball (!)  It’s a weird indie (but, by no means not List-worthy). Hooper is still in full exploitation mode before Spielberg ruined him with a professional filmmaking lesson for Poltergeist (1982)—not a bad movie per se, but with a few exceptions, it threw Hooper permanently off course.

Poster for Grizzly (1976) No award will given for guessing what film Mako: The Jaws of Death (directed by William Grefe) is shamelessly ripping off. It stars Richard Jaeckel using sharks to exact revenge. Better is William Girdler’s Jaws-with-claws, Grizzly, which stars Christopher George and the busy Jaeckel (again). It’s an unadulterated rip-off, made all the better for its trashiness.

Jeff Liberman’s Squirm is a hoot. Think Jaws as a buncha earth worms. It’s roguish humor is winning. It was a video store favorite for years, usually found next to the sticky floor section.

Surprisingly Rattlers (directed by John McCauley) are a duller, less threatening lot than fish bait.

Frustratingly, The Rat Savior (directed by Krsto Panic) remains an elusive gem. It won several awards at genre festivals, was available briefly on beta-max, was shown rarely on television and in arthouse cinemas (where I caught it a quarter of a century ago), and is only available on YouTube, devoid of subtitles or dubbing. It has recently been released on a PAL DVD in its original Yugoslavian language, which will hopefully pave the path for an accessible statewide release. Based on the novel by Alexander Greene, it’s a rodent-infested variation on body snatchers crossed with John Campbell’s shape-shifting “Thing.” The nasty cheese-eaters kill and impersonate human victims. The resident scientist (Ivica Vidovic) develops his own pesticide. However, once the rats impersonate a human, there’s no way to differentiate them, and mistakes are bound to happen. The Rat Savior is allegorical, political paranoia; a one-of-a-kind film, awaiting rescue from obscurity.

The House with Laughing Windows (directed by ) is a rare giallo that’s more unsettling than stylish. Already covered here as a Continue reading 1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE OMEN & CARRIE

1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.

Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To remains one of the most relentlessly original films of the 70s, already covered here and a solid List contender.

Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.

Still from The Omen (1976)The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to , whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead Continue reading 1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE OMEN & CARRIE

276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I have no idea what that was about. Was it about alcoholism? Was it about corporate realities? Was it about sex? Was it about nothing?” –P.C. Clair

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, , , Bernie Casey

PLOT: In a desperate bid to mitigate a drought back on his home planet, a humanoid alien is sent to Earth: “The Planet of Water,” in his people’s language. Adopting the name Thomas Newton, he sets about establishing a technology company, World Enterprises, to fund his mission and design a vessel to allow his return. During his stay on Earth, the combined distractions of a young woman and alcohol (an even greater love) nearly break him, and he feels forced to hasten his decampment.

Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name.
  • The unfortunate mix of cocaine abuse and emotional detachment that overwhelmed Bowie during and after the filming meant that the actor/singer’s planned soundtrack for the film never came into fruition. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas fame) was pulled in last minute to create the soundtrack before the premier.
  • Candy Clark played both Newton’s lover, Mary-Lou, and his wife on his home world. In a small turn for a third “role”, she appeared as Thomas Newton himself during a brief scene — exiting the World Trade Center—when Bowie himself was unavailable.
  • Wanting a “big name” for the lead, the movie’s backers were pushing for Robert Redford to play Newton. Fate–and budget restrictions—fortunately got in the way.
  • The U.S. distributor cut about twenty to thirty minutes out of the film, making it more confusing than the (already challenging) director’s cut, and leading to some bad initial reviews.
  • In 1987 the same story was adapted less successfully for a television movie starring the undistinguished Lewis Smith.
  • In 2015, in one of his last creative works, Bowie co-wrote “Lazarus,” a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth; one theater critic wrote that “What they have created makes perilously little sense,” but “it’s nearly impossible not to be persuaded and baffled and at least a little thrilled.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a David Bowie 1970s cult science-fiction movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, one expects to find a lot of shots that are “indelible.” However, the most memorable (and distressing) occurs when we find Thomas Newton in his media room. Beginning with a creepy stare and a rictus smile, he gazes at a bank of televisions all wired together to a remote on his viewing throne. His mania and desperation break through the audio-visual spasms pouring from the cathode ray screens as he begins shouting, “leave me alone!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Never enough televisions ; glitter-helmet assassins ; I see the past and it sees me

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Without David Bowie’s presence, this movie would still make the “Certified” cut— but much less readily. The ambiguity of the narrative, boldness of the visual style, and abstruseness of the soundscape all work together to form a solidly weird experience. David Bowie acts, as it were, like the prodigious amount of frosting on this weird layer cake. Depending upon your view, Bowie was very good at acting like someone who’s an alien— or maybe didn’t need to “act” at all.


Original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

COMMENTS: What would the people of Earth do with a space visitor? How would the traveler cope? When faced with an unrelenting Continue reading 276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

RUSS MEYER’S UP! (1976)

followed up on the relative success of 1975’s Supervixens with Up! From a script based on Roger Ebert’s original story, Meyer produced his most surreal live-action, X-rated cartoon. There is no tangible plot, but rather loosely connected vignettes.

Up! opens with a sadomasochistic scene of Adolf Schwartz (Edward Schaaf) being tortured, and pleasured, by three female prostitutes, each belonging to a different ethnic group: the Ethiopian Chief (Elaine Collins), the Oriental Limehouse (Su Ling) and Pocahontas (Foxy Lae). Of course, the Native American requires a Captain Smith, who she get in puritan pilgrim Paul (Robert McLane, with a foot-long prosthetic penis). Candy Samples also appears, under a mask, to breast slap Adolf, who is actually the aged Adolf Hitler, having apparently faked his 1944 suicide. He’s living in a Bavarian castle (his mailbox has a red flag) until a mysterious black-gloved assassin drops a piranha in the Fuhrer’s bathtub to the strains of the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Although obviously justified, Adolf’s death is actually a disappointment: within the dank dungeon, Schaff is the most animated sex participant, expressively enjoying his carnality. The remaining cast members all engage with the outdoor, sunny California countryside, but under a spell of kinetic blankness, like sex machines gone wild. That is intentional. It is essential to be aware of this film’s time period. The country was still under the spell and success of the hardcore XXX film Deep Throat (1972). It influenced the entire sexploitation industry and Up! is a venomous, satirical rejection of the hardcore phenomenon. Paradoxically, Up! is also an attempt to appease changing tastes.

appears (nude, except for leather boots) as “the Greek Chorus”: a mythological goddess come down to pleasure our eyes and inform us that Adolf’s death was “a murder most foul.” Throughout the rest of the film, Natividad sits atop phallic trees, prances through the landscape, and quotes dabs of Shakespeare mixed with nonsensical phrases such as “the kamikaze of cunnilingus” and “the black sperm of revenge” while Sweet L’il Alice (Janet Woods) engages in interracial dildo sex with Gwendoline (Linda Sue Ragsdale).

Cue the second opening (apparently, the first was a kind of overture): Margo Winchester (busty Raven de la Croix, in an amusing Mae West impersonation) is hitching a ride not far from the castle when the vile redneck Leonard Box (Larry Dean) chases her into a lake and brutally rapes her. In retaliation, she kills him, but copper Homer Johnson (Monty Bane) threatens to arrest her. Naturally, they retreat to a mountain cabin where she repeatedly pleasures Johnson’s johnson (another foot long prosthetic) and avoids incarceration.

Natividad returns sporadically to try to guide us through the dizziness (thankfully, she fails) and consistently reminds us that “a murder most foul,” has been committed (as if we care, unless you’re a mournful Meyer with a Nazi fetish).

Johnson’s johnson gets pleasured by more busty babes, including “Chesty Young Thing” Marianne Marks, on her knees. Winchester (after trying out numerous studs) decides to get a job at Paul and Alice’s diner as a dancing waitress, where her cleavage makes her a local sensation. Unfortunately, her gyrating arouses backwoodsman Rafe (Bob Schott) who rapes her on a table to a cheering crowd of sex-starved hayseeds (Meyer himself, billed as “Hitchcock,” is among the rabble). Rafe gets carried away and gets axed by Homer (remember him?), but survives long enough to reciprocate. Gallons of deep cadmium red and ploopy sound effects ramp up this mean-spirited, chainsaw to the crotch of a cartoon, which occasionally seems a precursor to Sam Raimi.

Before things get too out of hand, Natividad splashes through the tulips, crying again, “a murder most foul has been committed.” Winchester already knows, because she is an undercover detective. Both Paul and the bi-sexual Alice lust after Winchester, prompting a duel (return of the dildo) and, finally, uncovering the identity of Hitler’s assassin. The finale, shot and edited like future music videos, is a frenzied marathon of sex and violence run amok.

Still from Up! (1976)References to Citizen Kane (1941), Psycho (1960), and John Ford’s cavalry westerns abound. It is surprising that Up! is not better known. De la Croix  is femme fatale comparable to Tura Satana (both break the backs of lesser men). Woods and Natividad fill out the remaining trio of magnetic leads. Natividad went onto have a long personal relationship with Meyer, until her entry into hardcore sex films prompted a breakup (although they remained friends until his death). Up! may be Meyer’s most pronounced rebellion against the status quo, and is a definitely List Contender.

CAPSULE: BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Curtis

FEATURING: , Oliver Reed, Lee Montgomery,

PLOT: A family of three, and their elderly aunt, find a deal allowing them to stay in an old country mansion for the summer, providing they keep the place up and leave out a plate of food for the house’s reclusive matron, who never leaves her room.

Still from Burnt Offerings (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too mild, with some slight ambiguity but no significant weirdness.

COMMENTS: Burnt Offerings was the beginning of a late 1970s/early 1980s haunted house cycle that encompassed three Amityville Horror movies; the mini-movement climaxed commercially with 1982’s Poltergeist and artistically with 1980’s The Shining. In fact, Offerings is most interesting when considered as a precursor to The Shining, which would take its theme of a parent possessed by an evil spirit and catapult it into the horror stratosphere. Offerings, on the other hand, suffers from poor pacing. It’s too leisurely getting started: it’s over a half hour into the film before we see the first incident which might be categorized as “supernatural.” Up until then, the focusing on spooky shots of light bulbs while horror movie music plays just doesn’t cut it. Even when things do finally start to happen—swimming pool roughhousing that gets dangerously out of hand, a recurring nightmare about a smiling chauffeur—events occur in fits and starts, with husband and wife spending the interim discussing how each previous manifestation of evil is affecting their relationship. Offering a few creepy moments along the way, the movie crawls to a non-surprise ending.

The film’s biggest virtue is its cast. Karen Black, by now no longer a sex kitten but not yet a matron, centers the film. Her sensuality is perfectly constrained, and we are not surprised at hints that the couple’s sex life may be well past the honeymoon phase. Son Lee Montgomery is acceptable; he doesn’t sink the film, which is the most you can really hope from a young actor. Bette Davis is unremarkable here, but she is Bette Davis; her very presence adds legitimacy. Of all the actors, Reed may understand the material’s urge vto break through into camp the best; the moments when his face goes spastic as he fights off the evil inside him give it the film some melodramatic tics of life.

Burnt Offerings was based on a 1973 novel by Robert Marasco, although director Dan Curtis (of TVs “Dark Shadows” fame) rewrote it significantly. The movie was not a critical success, but it has a small but devoted fan base (probably enough to categorize it as “fondly remembered,” but below the threshold that would make it a true cult movie). The 2015 Blu-ray contains a number of new interviews with the surviving cast and adds a new commentary track from critic Richard Harland Smith to the old one from Curtis, Black and co-writer William F. Nolan that has been ported over from the DVD release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Most of the cliches of the Gothic genre are encompassed in the plot about Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, and young Lee H. Montgomery having a weird summer after moving into a home owned by batty Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart… might have been interesting if director Dan Curtis hadn’t relied strictly on formula treatment.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

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

LIST CANDIDATE: HEART OF GLASS (1976)

Herz aus Glas

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Josef Bierbichler, Sonja Skiba, Stefan Güttler

PLOT: A Bavarian town at the beginning of the 19th century loses its master glassblower, the creator of a prized ruby-red glass. As the town’s lifeblood dissipates, the population goes mad, with a shepherd the only voice of reason remaining untouched by the malaise.

Still from Heart of Glass (1976)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In Heart of Glass, Herzog captures the effect of an entire town losing its mind. By hypnotizing virtually every actor, the dreaminess of the shots melds with the action of the citizens, creating a dark, dreamworld effect. The most grounded character, Hias, is a seer of visions both immediate and far flung—and he is the village’s only grip on reality.

COMMENTS: This pensive movie begins with a rear-shot of a man looking over a herd of cows. His first words are in voiceover, played against grand scenes of waterfalls and nature: “I look into the distance, to the end of the world. Before the day is over, the end will come.” This seer (Joseph Bierbichler) is named Hias, and he is a shepherd of a nearby Bavarian village. A group of townsmen come to him with words of fear: “the time of giants has returned.” Their town has just lost its legendary glassblower, and as the seer predicts, the end comes to them before the day is out.

Herzog’s Heart of Glass maintains the unearthly, disconnected tone that is set up in the opening shots throughout. Under the spell of hypnosis, the actors portraying the townspeople all behave as if they are several shifts from reality. The worst affected is the town’s magistrate, a man of means who, used to the great wealth the glass export brought in, crumbles when it is lost. First, he insists the glassblower’s house be dismantled and foundation dug up, just in case the secret formula is hidden therein. He demands the seizure of a davenport that the craftsman had given to his mother, in case the solution is to be found inside. He laments, “the untidiness of the stars makes my head ache.” The tragedy has no explanation in earthly logic, and the whole town faces their doom with such disbelief that no one can now seem to think for himself.

Events take an increasingly desperate turn. As predicted by Hias, one of a pair of friends dies breaking the fall of the other. A plan is hatched that all the remaining ruby glass is to be thrown into the lake, to make it turn red. Eventually there is murder and arson as the magistrate—the throbbing head of the hive-mind that’s taken over the populace—goes to greater and greater extremes to bring the secret back from the void into which it has slipped. Hias sees this, and laments, but cannot stop what occurs. During an enigmatic scene in the village tavern, he sits flanked by a white hen and a dancing simpleton, and prophesies far into the future, seeing World War I, World War II, and eventually nuclear annihilation: “…where the black box drops, green and yellow dust arises.”

Heart of Glass ends on an allegorical note. Having fled the doomed town, Hias returns to his beloved woods. Traveling through the primordial forest, he seems at one with it—until he peers into a dark cave. He goes into a fit and, upon recovery, has another of his visions. He sees two islands, “on the fringes of existence,” that have no other human contact, and do not know the earth is round. After years of spying the horizon, a man and his followers take off on a tiny craft to head toward the abyss. “It may have been seen as a sign of hope,” Hias intones, “that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.” Change is terrifying, but it is also the only way forward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The elusiveness of ‘Heart of Glass’ makes it something of a disappointment. But it is too mysteriously lovely to be regarded as a failure.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

152. ALLEGRO NON TROPPO (1976)

“My idea was to have an orchestra in complete contrast to Disney’s. I saw Fantasia eleven times at the movies as a child. I loved the visuals but I didn’t really care much for the live-action sequences, the stylized orchestra, all the lights. It seemed too elegant, too refined. So to do something rather shabby and wacky, the exact opposite, I thought would work.”–Bruno Bozzetto

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bruno Bozzetto

FEATURING: Maurizio Micheli, Néstor Garay, Maurizio Nichetti

PLOT: A film producer in an empty concert hall announces he will soon present something unprecedented and original—animations scored to classical music—and insists on continuing even after getting an angry call from Hollywood. An orchestra of old women is assembled and a cartoonist is released from a dungeon and ordered to draw illustrations in real time as the band plays. We then see the cartoons—a faun pining for a nymph, creatures that evolve from a coke bottle, the domestic fantasies of a stray cat—set to compositions by Dvorack, Ravel and others, with comic sketches set in the orchestra hall in between the featurettes.

Still from Allegro non Troppo (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The phrase “allegro non troppo” is a musical direction literally meaning “fast, but not too fast.” “Allegro” also means happy, upbeat or cheerful in Italian, so the title could be read as a pun suggesting that the movie is lighthearted, but not saccharine.
  • Animator Bruno Bozzetto began his career making shorts and commercials. In 1965, his West and Soda was the first Italian feature-length animation film in over twenty years.
  • Allegro Non Troppo did not fare well in Italian theaters. According to animator Giuseppe Laganà, there were approximately forty people at the premiere: thirty of the cast and crew, five film critics, and only five paying customers. Bozzetto later complained that Italian audiences weren’t interested in seeing cartoons unless the name “Disney” was attached.
  • The character the artist draws on a sheet of paper during dinner is Signor Rossi, Bozzetto’s most popular creation, who would have been familiar to Italian audiences (though not as familiar as Mickey Mouse).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: As tempted as I am to select the live-action scene of the gorilla attempting to do a Cossack dance in the orchestra pit, or the drawing of the boob tree (a tree with breast fruit hanging heavy off a nude torso trunk, as envisioned by a horny hallucinating satyr), I have to concede that the march of the mutating dinosaurs to Ravel’s “Bolero” is certain to be the memory that sticks in your mind’s eye through the years.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This compilation of animated sonatas featuring satyrs, devils and dinosaurs traipsing through colorful post-psychedelic landscapes might not have been odd enough to place the movie on the List of the 366 Best Weird Films of All Time if not for the equally bizarre black and white slapstick intermezzi featuring a sleazy promoter, a bully conductor, a harried artist and an all-female geriatric orchestra. It helps that the music is transcendent and the animation witty, but throw in a guy in a gorilla suit and the deal is sealed.


Italian DVD trailer for Allegro Non Troppo

COMMENTS: Bruno Bozzetto very wisely addresses the surface similarities between his movie and Disney’s more famous animated classical Continue reading 152. ALLEGRO NON TROPPO (1976)

CAPSULE: RETURN OF THE KUNG FU DRAGON (1976)

Ju Ma Pao

DIRECTED BY: Yu Chick-Lim

FEATURING: Polly Kwan (as Sun Kuan Rin Feng), Cheung Lik, Li Chung-Chien, Hsiao Wang

PLOT: A teenage princess learns kung fu so that she can return from exile inside a magic mountain to claim her kingdom from usurpers.

Still from Return of the Kung Fu Dragon (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This colorful costume fantasy martial arts adventure brandishes a couple of bizarre characters, a convoluted epic plot containing a couple of unintentionally surreal digressions, and editing and dubbing problems that sink below even the usual low standards of the genre. With their warriors flying through the air and doing improbable double backflips while delivering stuttering threats in dubbed English, almost all of the 1970s chopsocky movies are at least a little bit weird; this one contains enough extra strangeness to qualify as a noteworthy movie of its type, though not enough to challenge for a place on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

COMMENTS: Ah, , the weirdest of the martial arts! You never see a devotee of judo using her martial prowess to put her hands all over a street vendor’s stock of steamed buns, or a karate master hanging out with an red-nosed androgynous dwarf who looks like Bjork’s stunt double. Even American kickboxers look dignified by comparison. But it’s the on-the-cheap craziness of the comic book kung fu inspired by Bruce Lee’s Seventies box office success that makes this short-lived but demented sub genre so lovable. Return of the Kung Fu Dragon is, at the same time, one of the most ambitious and the least competent of Taiwan’s action offerings of the period. There’s a childishness to the gaudy presentation, with the bright colors and wizards and princesses and invisible dwarfs, which suggests that Dragon may have been aimed at Taiwanese kids, although of course in the US it played drive-ins and UHF “Kung Fu Theater” venues rather than kiddie matinées. Dragon is constantly throwing so many new characters and twists at you that, if the story wasn’t ultimately such a generic rightful-ruler-returns-from-exile-to-depose-tyrant affair, it would be nearly impossible to follow. Much is made of certain plot devices—e.g. a magic jade dragon staff that somehow allows the evil interloper to finally attack the peaceful island kingdom—that simply disappear later in the tale. The editing doesn’t help the continuity: the aforementioned staff is seen in closeups alternated with shots of a bunny running through the underbrush (to show, we eventually gather, that the wizard is ambushing a hunter as part of the invasion scheme). The schizophrenic editing serves the castle-storming sequence well, at least, as the camera cuts from one individual melee to another and captures the chaos of battle. But even here there are odd inserts, such as when an archer shoots a flying man (?) out of the sky. Neither character was seen before that shot, and neither is seen after. The most jarring moment comes in the middle of the film, when one of the characters, who has taken time out for some martial training, suddenly starts popping into frame, high-kicking in front of a Chinese chess board backdrop, then disappearing. We assume this expressionistic sequence means to stress the analogy between learning to fight and intellectual tactics. But immediately afterwards, another set of characters stumble upon an actual game board set up in the middle of the wilderness—and when their evil imperial pursuers find them the ensuing battle is a stylized kung fu/chess hybrid. It’s that kind of movie; the disdain for realism is amusing and refreshing, but it can also be frustrating and disorienting. Dragon‘s wild cast of characters include, among others, two princesses (well, one is a fake princess who’s also referred to as “the Black Girl” for reasons that are never explained) and an evil usurper who’s given to highly inappropriate bouts of maniacal laughter. The chief bad guy is a wicked old wizard with a beard so long that he has a servant girl whose sole job is to carry it around for him twenty four hours a day; but, he’s not even the weirdest character. That honor goes to the comic relief, an effeminate dwarf with bizarre ponytails and a red nose who can turn invisible (although we in the audience can see him perfectly well whenever he does). In the eyes of the filmmakers, of course, all of this plot and characterization was just necessary filler and carrier for the fight scenes. They are frequent and energetic and, although they lack the athleticism you’d see in some of the better Shaw Brothers productions of the period, they should satisfy chopsocky fans. All in all, Kung Fu Dragon is a frantic, somewhat disorienting experience that should appeal to gonzo martial arts fans; if you’re not already a devotee of the genre, or if you require a plot that makes sense, you should stay far away.

Return of the Kung Fu Dragon is in the public domain in the U.S. and can be viewed at the Internet Archive, among other Net sources. I viewed it on Mill Creek’s fun Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack Collection, which also contains the action oddities Kung Fu Arts and Ninja Champion.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everything is thrown into the cauldron for this one (dig the magic mirror & the burning gravel!), which means there are enough crudely imaginative elements to make Return of the Kung Fu Dragon strangely viewable at best.”–Joe Burrow, The Action Mutant Reviews (DVD)

CAPSULE: BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (1976)

AKA The Incredible Torture Show

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Joel Reed

FEATURING: Seamus O’Brien, Luis de Jesus

PLOT: A sadist who runs a Grand Guignol off-off-Broadway show as a cover for his white slavery ring kidnaps a theater critic and a ballerina to design his greatest production yet.

Still from Bloodsucking Freaks (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I don’t think Bloodsucking Freaks is all that weird, although I have trouble convincing my maiden aunt of that fact. The problem is one of definition: many people out there identify “immoral” or “shocking” as “weird,” while I consider shock films to be a distinct, if occasionally overlapping, category from weird movies. Essentially, Bloodsucking Freaks is just cheaply made, misogynist, grindhouse soft porn, peppered with some intentional and some unintentional comedy, a bit bizarre only because it goes to the absurdest extremes in its quest to shock the viewer.

COMMENTS: A naked girl has her hand cut off with a hacksaw and her eye pulled out of its socket while a live audience chuckles at her. A naked girl has her teeth pulled out one by one with pliers. A naked girl has a hole drilled in her skull, then her brain is sucked out through a straw. That’s pretty much all there is to Bloodsucking Freaks; there’s a thin plot tying these violations together, and torturers Sardu (the tall, fey one) and Ralphus (the smelly-looking dwarf who can’t act) make bad puns in between atrocities (“I bet you an arm and a leg…”). Still, the film obviously exists for no other reason than to show naked women humiliated, tortured and dismembered. But, it’s a comedy, so that’s OK. (Seriously, this is people’s defense of the film: it’s intended as comedy, so we shouldn’t be offended. These same fans would presumably champion a Ku Klux Klan white supremacist screed, if it’s presented in the form of a humorous monologue). The problem with Bloodsucking Freaks, of course, is all one of attitude and context. Nudity isn’t controversial, graphic violence isn’t categorically offensive, and even mixing the two doesn’t automatically create offense. Freaks’ sin is that its main purpose is to give men who watch it an erection from watching women being tortured. The movie’s constant parade of nude, nubile victims have no personalities; they rarely object to the torture, or plead with their captors, and never hint at having jobs or families or any existence outside of the dungeon. For the most part their cries of pain are indistinguishable from a porn actresses’ faked orgasmic moans. When a woman is tortured via electrocution administered through nipple clips, her writhing appears to come from a sensation very different from agony. Male arousal isn’t a matter of free choice or will; being exposed to sexual images causes the male libido to click into readiness, and Freaks’ main calling is to relentlessly associate that stirring in the loins with expressions of wanton cruelty. I’m no politically correct critic who searches out nude scenes so I can howl about the “objectification” of women, but when Sardu eats dinner using a naked woman as a table or tosses darts at a bulls-eye painted on a lass’ backside, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some slight, perhaps unconscious objectification of women going on here. But the most offensive issue with Bloodsucking Freaks isn’t its pornographic nature, but its refusal to own up to its own obscenity. The movie contains witty black jokes: a box of white slaves marked “fragile,” Sardu and Ralphus’ grossed-out reactions to the doctor’s brand of “elective neurosurgery,” and the unforgettable line “her mouth will make an interesting urinal.” But the purpose of putting such gibes into the script at all is to provide an excuse to watch scenes of women being symbolically punished and brutalized. Men can claim to watch Bloodsucking Freaks for the comedy the way that they used to pretend to read Playboy “for the articles.” The movie is in self-denial; it holds itself at arm’s length and pretends its images don’t mean the things they quite obviously do. In the opening moments of the movie Sardu congratulates the attendees at his off-Broadway torture show on their “courage” in watching a nude blonde’s fingers crushed in a vise, then argues “this is just a theatrical presentation, a show, which offers no reality, not a fraction of reality, and just allows us, you and me, to delve into our grossest fantasies…” That’s writer/director Reed speaking directly to the movie audience, preemptively disowning his own vile tableaux by arguing they have no power or meaning, granting viewers permission to indulge the most loathsome parts of themselves. More perceptive, however, are the lines he wrote for the theater critic: “No true actor would submit to engage in such trash.” In advice I wish I could follow, he continues, “If I were to review your so-called show, even badly, I fear some of my readers might come just out of curiosity.” I have no doubt that many of you will want to see Bloodsucking Freaks after reading this review. Watching a truly filthy movie is something of a rite of passage, and it won’t turn you into a rapist. It’s not my job to tell you not to see it, just to give you fair warning that it’s reputation is not exaggerated: this movie can scar your soul, and you will see things you may wish you could forget. But if you don’t mind watching something Ted Bundy probably masturbated to, then by all means, have at it.

Many people believe Entertainment produced Bloodsucking Freaks (they did not make it but only distributed it, buying the rights and re-releasing the movie to drive-ins in 1983 with a brilliantly cynical campaign that included tipping off “Women Against Pornography” on what theaters to picket). Troma is responsible for the special edition “director’s cut” DVD, however, with an audio track provided by torture porn impresario Eli Roth. Roth’s sarcastic commentary, which compares the movie to Taxi Driver and muses about the symbolism of the caged cannibal women, starts out amusing, but the mockery wears thin (just how much trash should the director of Hostel be talking, anyway?) Roth’s insincerity is a typical approach to Bloodsucking Freaks, though: cover up a guilty erection with the lowest form of wit.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a boffo presentation is arranged out of Busby Berkeley, Hi, Mom! and Theater of Blood, borrowing Herschell Gordon Lewis’s electric organ while building toward the image of the chained reviewer kicked in the mouth by the topless ballerina… a manifesto for an immoral cinema…exists in that disconcerting crossroads of loathsome exploitation and annihilating art.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion.org

(This movie was nominated for review by Lee Townsend, who said “this distorted my mind many years ago and let me realize what weird really was.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)