Tag Archives: 1980

CAPSULE: BAD TIMING (1980)

AKA Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Art Garfunkle, ,

PLOT: A woman is rushed to the emergency room; flashbacks explain the troubled relationship between a psychology professor and a free-spirited younger woman that brought them to this pass.

Still from Bad Timing (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Extremely subtle weirdness + adequate Nic Roeg representation on the List already + shrinking available space (only 85 slots left at the time of this writing) make it a bad time for Bad Timing to come along. Had this review been written earlier in this site’s existence, this movie’s layers of mystery might have convinced us to shortlist it, but now we have weirder candidates waiting in the wings.

COMMENTS: Nicolas Roeg shows excellent, if somewhat deceptive, timing with Bad Timing. He feints that he’s about to give us a bittersweet meditation on a failed love affair, but instead probes ever deeper into a psychology of paranoia and obsession, using a subtly dislocating style to keep us off guard. Opposed dualities appear everywhere: male vs. female, rational vs. emotional, East vs. West, law vs. crime. The setup is classic amour fou, pairing successful academic Dr. Alex Linden with the hard-drinking, free-loving Milena. As the relationship is slowly revealed in flashbacks, we see the power balance between the two shift back and forth, as both parties become mired in an increasingly destructive relationship, in different ways. Alex appears coldly rational—Milena bitingly advises him to try to love her instead of trying to understand her—but his advanced training doesn’t inoculate him from human frailty; he’s as subject to jealousy as the next man, and when he falls from his logical perch, he falls hard, into a churning id.

Paranoia and second-guessing are the rule in Alex’s world. The ever-present Cold War background, which is seldom explicitly mentioned, aroused more paranoid associations at the time than it does now. Alex lectures his Intro to Psych students about how everyone is a spy, starting with children peeking on their parent’s lovemaking; later, it appears that the psychiatrist himself is being analyzed by the detective, whose intuition and experience may lead him closer to Alex’s essence than Freudian methodologies would. Alex’s nemesis is a source of mystery and paranoia, too. Harvey Keitel’s obsession with investigating what on the surface seems to be an open-and-shut suicide attempt is itself obsessive, and seems almost unmotivated (until a last minute revelation). Wearing a greasy mullet, Keitel doesn’t make the slightest pretense of being Austrian; I don’t think this is bad casting, but deliberate dissonance, a clue that his character is pure metaphor.

Art Garfunkle, on the other hand, really is bad casting, and his presence damages what could have been an unqualified classic. Roeg’s good taste in casting as an alien The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t carry forward here. Not only is Garfunkle a stiff in the acting department, but we’re asked to view him as a suave sex symbol, someone whose magnetism would ensnare the heart of a young woman who could have her pick of any stud in Vienna. Fortunately, an excellent, brave performance from the underappreciated Theresa Russell blows through Art’s inadequacies in their scenes together.

The finale is truly shocking, but well-earned. Also of note is the excellent soundtrack, featuring hits from , Billie Holiday, The Who, and Keith Jarrett. The difficulty of re-securing the rights to all of this music for home video release put Bad Timing out of circulation for many years. It was released to mixed reviews and big controversies: it was rated “X” in the U.S. (a commercial death sentence), and the U.K. distributor called it “sick” and had its logo pulled off prints. Although the film is better appreciated today (even receiving a Criterion Collection release), the furor over Bad Timing led to a perception of Roeg as box office poison. After starting his career off with five memorable films, the director’s career fell off precipitously in the 80s, with 1990’s adaptation The Witches marking a brief comeback to relevance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of Roeg’s most complex and elusive movies, building a thousand-piece jigsaw from its apparently simple story of a consuming passion between two Americans in Vienna.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by sometime contributor Eric Gabbard,  who pleaded “The odd juxtapositions and time shifts. It’s a definite weird candidate. Give it a chance.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: XANADU (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Greenwald

FEATURING: Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, Gene Kelly, Matt Lattanzi, James Sloyan

PLOT: Sonny Malone is a gifted artist reduced to designing album covers, but when he meets former big band leader Danny McGuire, the duo join forces with an Olympian muse open a roller disco club.

Still from Xanadu (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Xanadu is campy, kitschy and appalling, but it’s not weird. It’s just one of the last death rattles of the disco era.

COMMENTS: La La Land may have revived the movie musical, which has been on life support for decades because of flops like Xanadu. This film spawned a soundtrack album (deliriously overproduced by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne) that was a monster hit in 1980, spawning five top 20 singles. The movie itself, however, bombed, and rightfully so. It’s inoffensive, embarrassing piffle. Made on a big budget, Xanadu still looks cheap, and director Robert Greenwald , who later made The Burning Bed and several progressive-minded documentaries, doesn’t really seem to know how to stage musical numbers, despite choreography from Kenny Ortega (High School Musical). Michael Beck, fresh off the macho action classic The Warriors, looks embarrassed (he never starred in a movie again), and poor 68-year-old Gene Kelly makes his unfortunate farewell to musicals in this dud. Olivia Newton-John is beautiful but cannot act—although she was much better in Grease—-while director Don Bluth (An American Tail) contributes a weak animated segment.

Practically all memory of the film vanishes right after you’ve seen it. Xanadu is sort of a remake of the indifferently received 1947 Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth, while Kelly also played a character named Danny McGuire in the 1944’s Cover Girl opposite Hayworth. Either of those films has to better than Xanadu, which only Newton-John may still remember fondly: the young Danny McGuire is played in flashback by dancer-actor Matt Lattanzi, who later became her husband. No amount of fake glitter and flash can salvage this Lattanzi-Newton John family album, however: the climactic musical number involves a series of revolving stages that reminded me of the old Disneyland show “America Sings”. I’d rather sit through “America Sings” again. In fact, those who want to experience Xanadu should listen to the soundtrack album (featuring Newton John, ELO, Cliff Richard, and the Tubes)  instead of slumbering through this decidedly non-weird musical relic of the Studio 54 era.

Someone apparently had pleasant, perhaps drug-induced memories of the picture, because in 2007 Xanadu was adapted into a modestly produced Broadway musical (starring “30 Rock”‘s Cheyenne Jackson) that was nominated  for a few Tony awards. In the end, Xanadu may be recalled chiefly as being part of the “great”—or awful—disco musical trend of 1980, which also gave us the infamous Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music. Anecdotally, unfortunate moviegoer John J.B. Wilson saw both films at a 99-cent double feature and came up with the idea of the Razzie awards, “honoring” the year’s worst films, which are still held today. At least Xanadu has better songs than Can’t Stop the Music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To appreciate the madness within, one must take in the blinding neon sights with an open heart and at least one nostril-coating line of cocaine. Surely I hold no certainty that ‘Xanadu’ was fueled by heaping spoonfuls of Bolivian marching powder, but I offer this evidence: it was 1980 and the picture is bonkers.”–Brian Orndoff, Brianorndoff.com (DVD)

272. CITY OF WOMEN (1980)

La città delle donne

Recommended

“It’s the viewpoint of a man who has always looked at woman as a total mystery.… Through the ages, from the beginning of time, I’m certain man has covered woman’s face with masks. They are, however, his masks, not hers.”–Federico Fellini defending City of Women

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Ettore Manni, Bernice Stegers, Donatella Damiani

PLOT: Waking on a train across from a seductive woman, Snàporaz pursues her into the carriage’s wash-room. Abruptly, the train stops and the woman de-embarks, heading across a field with Snàporaz in close pursuit. During his long journey he explores an hotel teeming with Feminists, hitches a ride with a crew of drugged-out teenage motorists, and meets a doctor whose “manly” villa contravenes local law.

Still from City of Women (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • A massive re-work of the story was required when the second male lead (Ettore Manni, who played “Dr. Katzone”) died from a fatal, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the groin.
  • Before returning to his reliable proxy Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini offered the role to Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman declined, as he was concerned about the post-dubbing process being detrimental to his performance.
  • Though it received largely positive reviews on its general release, it fared poorly at Cannes. , in Rome at the time working on Nostalghia, dismissed City of Women in his diary, saying “…it’s true, his film is worthless.”
  • Production designer Dante Ferretti was kept on his toes while making of the film, as Fellini would constantly request that new, elaborate sets be whipped up in a small amount of time. Farretti invariably obliged the director’s requests, and his success allowed him sole billing as “Production Designer,” a title usually nabbed by Fellini himself in the movie’s credits.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the brief introduction of the train ride turning into a romp across a field, virtually everything that follows in Fellini’s City of Women starts globbing on to the memory. From a long list of choices (addled Feminists fomenting in an hotel, drugged-out [?] minors driving the middle-aged protagonist to a haunting techno-pop tune, and an aged Lothario blowing out 10,000 candles among them), perhaps the best choice is the joy-filled sequence in the museum of women at Katzone’s villa. Snàporaz darts back and forth with an innocently lecherous glee as he flicks on the photographs’ illumination and hears a snippet from that woman’s sexual history. The visual and sonic overload goes up to eleven when Snàporaz’s ex-wife appears at the end of the corridor and turns on all of the displays. Women, women everywhere—in sound and vision.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hall of sexual conquests; memory lane slide; ideal woman escape balloon

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Traipsing along for two and one-half hours, City of Women somehow combines the sugary charm of a light-weight musical with the non-stop adventure of an epic film. Beginning with a tone bordering on the mundane (the tediousness of travel), Fellini quickly pushes things from believable, to somewhat believable (the feminist convention), then onwards and upwards to a literal and metaphorical peak of disbelief as our hero escapes an arena full of spectators by clinging to a hot-air balloon. Between the jostling in the train car and the flight into the unknown, it would be faster to answer the question, what isn’t weird about it?


Original Italian trailer for City of Women

COMMENTS: Obsession can be a dangerous thing, but it can also be Continue reading 272. CITY OF WOMEN (1980)

259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

AKA Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane

“Kane said quietly, ‘Why won’t you go to the moon?’

‘Why do camels have humps and cobras none? Good Christ, man, don’t ask the heart for reasons! Reasons are dangerous!'”

–William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (novel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders

PLOT: Col. Kane, a U.S. Marines psychiatrist, is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing delusional military officers who are suspected malingerers. There, he bonds with Cutshaw, a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, with whom he engages in passionate dialogues about the existence of God. One night, Cutshaw breaks out of the compound and heads for a bar frequented by a rough motorcycle gang; Kane follows.

Still from The Ninth Configuration (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”) adapted the screenplay from his own 1978 novel, which was itself a reworking of a 1966 novel (“Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane”) with which he had been dissatisfied. This was his directorial debut (in a career that reached three films with 2016’s Legion).
  • Blatty originally wrote a “Kane” screenplay that he hoped would be filmed by in the early Seventies, but they could not find a studio willing to produce it. Blatty and Friedkin collaborated on The Exorcist (1973) instead.
  • Although the script made the rounds in Hollywood for years, no studio would back The Ninth Configuration. Blatty eventually funded the film half with his own money and half with a donation from Pepsico, who were willing to provide funds for complicated international tax reasons so long as the film was shot entirely in Hungary.
  • Blatty has fiddled with the editing through the years, deleting and restoring scenes, so that cuts run anywhere from 99 minutes to 140 minutes.
  • According to Blatty, The Ninth Configuration‘s Cutshaw is the same character as the astronaut who attended the dinner party in The Exorcist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it possibly be besides the crucifixion on the moon?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lunar Calvary; lunatic with a jet-pack; dog Hamlet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, invoking a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.


Clip from The Ninth Configuration

COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without Continue reading 259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

DAVID LYNCH’S THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

Critics and audiences were surprised by ‘s Elephant Man (1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear, The Straight Story).

The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic,  writing that the death of Joseph Merrick[1] was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film by or . Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, is entirely artifice.

Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by ‘s nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is ‘s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.

Wendy Hiller as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead, and as the hospital’s Governor Carr-Gomm are equally effective. The film is hampered, however, by the predictable hammy acting of Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes and, surprisingly, by Anne Bancroft’s superficial performance as upper-class Shakespearean actress Madge Kendal.

Still from The Elephant Man (1980)

Like the monster of ‘s Frankenstein (1931), Merrick is the protagonist in Lynch’s film. Set in turn of the century London, Treves rescues Merrick from the cruel Mr. Bytes, who regularly beats his freak. To his astonishment, Treves discovers that Merrick is both cultured and genteel.  After Carr-Gom’s eventual approval, both Treves and Mothershead care for Merrick until his death.

Lynch says quite a bit about class distinction and pulls no punches. The lower-class, uneducated masses are not spared simply because they are destitute. Indeed, Lynch depicts them as prone to barbarism. Nor does the film congratulate the aristocracy: as Mothershead points out, “we are exhibiting Merrick all over gain.”

In lesser hands, The Elephant Man could have easily been preachy, overtly sentimental (think late Chaplin) or caved into a melodramatic crescendo (Think Spielberg). Instead, Hurt’s performance breaks through Christopher Tucker’s ingenious makeup. Ultimately, it is that portrayal which we come away with. That Lynch never allows aesthetics to impede upon the soul of the film is a testament to his craftsmanship.

  1. The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film. []

STANLEY KUBRICK’S THE SHINING (1980)

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, which claims that telephoned author Stephen King shortly before filming commenced on The Shining (1980). Allegedly, Kubrick asked King: “Do you believe evil exists, as an entity?” “Yes, I do,” King answered. “Well, I don’t,” Kubrick replied as he slammed down the phone. According to the anecdote, King then knew his pulp novel had been “taken away” from him. His budding 1980 fan base agreed, feigning outrage at cinematic liberties Kubrick was to take. Despite King’s fans, The Shining was largely a hit with audiences and critics, though hardly unanimous. Since then, it has developed an epic cult reputation and is considered by many to be one of the greatest horror films of all time. As per the norm with extreme opinions, both views are off-kilter.

Underrated by literary critics and overrated by housewives, Stephen King was already a household name by 1980, and a film version of his novel about a possessed hotel was inevitable. What King was not prepared for was a forceful filmmaker with his own ideas. To be certain, this is Stanley Kubrick’s Shining, not King’s, and for that we can be thankful (King later proved the point in a dreadfully faithful 1997 television remake).

In Kubrick’s The Shining, the face of evil is not the hotel. Rather, it is the bourgeoisie husband/father Jack Torrance (), with the Still from The Shining (1980)hotel standing as an obvious symbol for man’s eternal evil. That very simple decision confused the hell out of its hyper-linear 1980 audience, although contemporary viewers seem less troubled by it. Yet, there are drawbacks; Kubrick does not make good on all of his promises. There is no substantial character arc for Jack. He is most interesting in the first half before being reduced to a monotone Looney Tune archetype. In sharp contrast, his wife Wendy () emerges from her bedside banality, like a figure jumping off a Symbolist canvas, to become a torrent. Channeling modernist painters (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Amedo Modgiglini) is a recurring Kubrick theme. Casting Duvall was shrewd. Footage from a “making of” documentary  reveals Kubrick was tyrannical when directing her. It paid off.  Unfortunately, the development of the patriarchal antagonist is not as layered. Kubrick fails to reign in Nicholson, whose character solicits identification and sympathy only from the film’s thug demographic (much in the same way that the Al Pacino’s Tony Montana does). In painting Jack two-dimensionally, Nicholson and Kubrick open wide the door of identification for simpletons. The film falters in allowing the ink to dry on Jack. The banality of evil theme is as subtle as the second half of Nicholson’s performance, but of course, Kubrick’s The Shining is not relegated to a single character.

Kubrick’s The Shining is a far more complex machine than the source Continue reading STANLEY KUBRICK’S THE SHINING (1980)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

The Ninth Configuration has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Please post any comments on the official Certified Weird entry. This post is closed to comments.

AKA Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Scott Wilson

PLOT: A U.S. Marines psychiatrist is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing soldiers who are suffering delusions; he bonds with a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, but harbors a deep secret of his own.

The Ninth Configuration

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie set in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, and invokes a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.

COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without God is a madhouse. An unexplained epidemic of apparent insanity strikes Vietnam War vets and other military types, including a NASA astronaut who’s now afraid to go to the Moon. The suspected malingerers are sent, naturally, to a castle in the Pacific Northwest, where they await the arrival of one Colonel Kane, a military psychiatrist with some odd ideas of his own. By the end of the film, Kane’s unorthodox therapeutic methods involve the inmates putting on a Shakespeare play cast entirely with dogs, roleplaying that they are prisoners of war and the hospital staff Nazi concentration camp officers, and inexplicably flying through the castle corridors in a jet pack. In other words, it’s sort of a wacky combination of M*A*S*H* and the early reels of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a touch of Spellbound (a movie which is explicitly referenced—whether as a hint or a red herring, you’ll have to watch to find out).

That outline makes Configuration sound like an anti-authoritarian satire—which it is, at times. The main point of departure is that the comedy is tinged with a very melancholy performance from a world-weary Stacy Keach, and the characters argue a lot about the existence of God. The movie itself is, in fact, more schizophrenic than its Corporal Kliner-esque caricature patients, bouncing around from mood to mood and finding time to shoehorn in a hallucination where the astronaut encounters a crucifixion on the Moon and a barroom brawl that pits a single Marine against a motorcycle gang. The origin of the plague of mental illness is never explained, although we can presume it’s a metaphor for the situation of men who have lost faith in something larger than themselves.

It’s no spoiler to point out that the argument that Blatty advances for God’s existence here is that a seed of universal love can be the only explanation for a man taking the irrational action of sacrificing his life for his fellow men. It seems to me that there is a fatal logical paradox with this argument from altruism, however. If someone wants to commit a selfless act—say, to quiet their own doubts, or assuage their own guilt—then by definition, the act will not be selfless. In his defense, I don’t think Blatty is naive enough to suggest that he has discovered the magic bullet proof of God’s existence with The Ninth Configuration; he merely finds that the existence of altruistic love suggests and supports the idea of a created universe. Whether you agree or not, you have to admit it’s the kind of subject that doesn’t get addressed often in movies, even weird ones. As the work of a passionate first time director shooting for the moon, The Ninth Configuration is recommended, but more for what it attempts than for what it achieves.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ve got a weakness for a certain kind of wacky personal filmmaking—movies… that aren’t ‘well made’ by any standard but clearly mean so much to their creators that all aesthetic rules crumble in the face of their bizarre, unaccountable intensity. William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration may be a classic of this peculiar genre…”–Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who said that there was an “atmosphere of overwrought emotion and barely concealed hysteria about the whole thing that left me feeling a bit creeped out.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

208. THE APPLE (1980)

“I’ve never been so high in my life!”–Bibi in The Apple

DIRECTED BY: Menahem Golan

FEATURING: George Gilmour, Catherine Mary Stewart, Vladek Sheybal

PLOT: Alfie and Bibi are a naive duo of musicians from Moose Jaw, Canada. Mr. Boogalow, a Faustian music producer who controls the entire world’s music industry with his BIM corporation, tries to sign them to a contract; Alfie refuses, but Bibi is seduced by the lure of fame. Bibi becomes the world’s biggest pop star as Boogalow extends his influence to government, forcing all citizens to wear a “Bimmark” or be fined; Alfie tries to win her back.

Still from The Apple (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • Together with his cousin, Yolam Globus, The Apple screenwriter/director Menahem Golan ran the Cannon Group, which produced hundreds of B-movies in the 1980s. Golan personally directed 46 films and produced or co-produced over 200. Some of the films Cannon later produced or distributed included ‘s King Lear, The Company of Wolves, and Lifeforce, along with exploitation movies featuring Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and a handful of lucrative ninja movies. Their story is told in the 2014 documentary The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. The Apple was made near the beginning of their moviemaking careers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Alfie’s vision of glam-rock Hell, featuring Napoleon, a dancing chorus of the damned, and a giant plastic apple, with a Roger Daltrey clone in a gold lamé G-string serving as master of ceremonies. It’s all capped off by the moment when an actual, actual, actual vampire (with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo and a sheer periwinkle scarf) pops into the frame, displaying her fangs and jazz claws, cocking her head, and generally acting like a vampiric village idiot.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: An actual, actual, actual vampire; pop dictatorship; deus ex Cadillac.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This science-fictiony musical satire/religious allegory is an attempt to cash in on the camp credibility of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with the disco sensibility and glittery production values of Xanadu (also made in 1980). The results are spectacularly uneven: the bizarre costuming, choreography, and psychedelic production numbers are actually pretty good in their deliberate excess, the songs range from annoying to hummable, and the rushed, out-of-left-field messianic ending is an unforgettable cinematic disaster.


Original trailer for The Apple

COMMENTS: The Apple pulls you in many different directions: Continue reading 208. THE APPLE (1980)

CAPSULE: CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Christopher George,  (as Katriona MacColl), Carlo de Mejo

PLOT:The suicide of a priest prompts the Hell Gate in Dunwich, NY to spring open, bringing with it maggot storms and risen dead.

Still from City of the Living Dead (1980)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This pastiche of zombies and Lovecraftian references does have a couple of neat-o violent set pieces, but is largely a tedious, incoherent affair.

COMMENTS: Throughout City of the Living Dead, you cannot help but think of prior, superior entries in the zombie genre. A woman’s scream sounds over a black screen, then there’s an opening shot of a church steeple with a backwards tracking shot showing the adjacent cemetery. The close-up a gravestone reads: “The soul that pines for eternity shall out span death. You dweller of the twilight void, come. Dunwich.” This helpfully informs the viewer of the movie’s two main ingredients: undead and ill-defined Lovecraftisms. We see a priest hang himself from a tree, the base of the rope attached to an obelisk (Masons?) Within moments of the cutback to New York City we find a young psychic and her mentor, with the former literally frightened to death (Poe?) and the latter going on about the merits of the Book of Enoch.

Unfortunately, so little goes right in this movie that it is difficult to discuss without sounding like a long list of complaints. To its credit, the pacing is brisk enough that its ninety-three minutes go by swiftly. An intrepid journalist is curious about the psychic’s mysterious death, and in the course of poking around the cemetery she’s to be laid to rest in, he even saves her from being buried alive (Poe, again). With her in tow, and receiving further advice from the Book of Enoch, they make their way to the cursed town of Dunwich in order to close the opened gate to hell before All Soul’s Day.

Taking place between the priest’s suicide and the nebulous finale is a string of poorly coordinated horror-movie moments. There’s a young village-idiot type who may or may not have supernatural powers (at the very least he can inflate a blow-up sex doll without a bicycle pump) who meets a rather grim (and, film-wise, notorious) fate at the hands of an over-protective father. There’s Dunwich’s resident psychologist who is either calm beyond belief in the face of unremitting supernatural tragedy or just bored out of his mind. And there’s my favorite diversion in this trip to mid-state (?) New York—two barflies and the saloon keeper having their own Xanaxed discussions about the slowly growing zombie menace.

Amidst all the Lovecraft, ancient Judaica, and Poe, there’s also, perhaps, a Conan Doyle hat-tip with the unlikely named mortician’s, “Moriarty and Sons.” Granted, this isn’t an altogether impossible name for an establishment, as it is not too uncommon an Irish name, but with all the other shout-outs to superior fiction, I’m inclined to believe the director deliberately went for it as a recognizable link to Holmes’ diabolical nemesis. Among the many real pities about this movie is the fact that none of these potentially worthwhile homages are given any narrative traction. Taken together, they seem more of a “Hail Mary” on the part of the film makers to lend their movie a smattering of depth as opposed to any actual link (either thematic or otherwise).

The horror scenes themselves aren’t that weird (rotting corpses, vomited innards, plague of maggots), and that results in the only truly weird moments in the movie being the strange relics of the era in which it was written. There’s a scene with the two cemetery men who don’t quite bury the heroine during which one of them (the one with the mustache, of course) is ogling an adult men’s magazine. He quips to his buddy, “Talk about ‘box lunches’, man!” as he gazes over the pictures. In contrast to this dismissive chauvinism is the enlightened exchange between the psychologist and a patient of his that goes as follows:

“Tell me honestly, do you consider me a basket case?”

No, you’re nurturing a pet neurosis, that’s all, just like about 70% of the female population of this country.”

“So according to you, I’m not stark raving mad…”

This exchange is made without any sense of irony, which brings me to my main reaction to this whole movie: had it been made within the past decade or so, City of the Living Dead could easily pass as a humorous post-modern take on the whole genre of low-budget horror movies from the ’70s and ’80s. However, that is not the case; everything is to be taken at face value. Fulci obviously intended this as a sincere entry into the zombie canon, but succeeded no more than  succeeded in his efforts to make a science fiction masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The entertainingly weird festival of gore looks forward to his masterpiece, The Beyond.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Ruggero Deodato

FEATURING: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen

PLOT: A professor launches an expedition into the Amazon searching for a missing crew of documentary filmmakers; he instead finds reels of film the crew shot depicting atrocities they themselves committed against the tribes, followed by the cannibals’ ultimate vengeance.

Still from Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Other than an unusual narrative structure and an incongruent musical score, I can’t detect much weirdness here; in fact, the movie strives for documentary realism. I think the fact that people (including critics) continually cite this film as “weird” is a case of confusion between the overlapping genres of the “shock” movie (which is sometimes, but not always, weird) and the “weird” movie (which is often shocking, but not always in a disturbing way).

COMMENTS: “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” muses Cannibal Holocaust‘s professor as ninety minutes of carnage grind to a halt. Surely, what he meant to say is “I wonder who the real savages are?” I mean, the real cannibals are clearly the ones who eat people, right? It’s sloppy, thoughtless touches like that which should tip off this film’s defenders that, despite some stabs at social commentary, Holocaust is not meant as a meaningful work of horror art. It’s a work of commercial exploitation, designed to bleed maximum receipts from grindhouse theater patrons. Because of its parade of atrocities, it is effective at giving you that dirty, nihilistic feeling that some people crave in their “horror” (although I think this type of extreme transgressive film, which isn’t really scary, belongs to another genre entirely: call it “despair porn” or, less judgmentally, “moral horror”). Director Ruggero Deodato does have a talent for moral horror, turning cannibal rape orgies into a kind of flowing sick poetry. The low-tech special effects here are excellent, especially the skulls overgrown with lichen and crawling with jungle vermin, and the impalement scene was so realistic that an Italian court brought Deodato up on charges of murder until he revealed how the trick was done. The unusual structure of the film, with a standard narrative yielding halfway through to found footage sequences interrupted by a framing commentary, serves to keep the viewer off guard.

Aside from the visceral makeup and the willingness to go “all the way” in depicting cruelty, however, Cannibal Holocaust is competent at best, subpar at worst. The acting, especially from young actors in the missing film crew, is not very convincing. Worse yet, their motivations are barely explained and cartoonishly villainous. The crew appears to conceived of as photogenic, celebrity versions of mondo shockumentarians (in a typically tasteless move, Deodato includes actual footage of villagers being executed by African firing squads that could have come from the Italians’ opus Africa Addio). The notion is that the filmmakers in the film-inside-the-film are willing to provoke conflict and stage violence (charges leveled against Jacopetti and Prosperi) to make their documentaries more shocking and marketable. The over-the-top way this idea is executed is scarcely believable, however; not only does the director here stage obscene atrocities and film his own rape scene, he is visibly gleeful when his guide has to have his leg amputated and when he comes across a woman impaled on a stake. If he could, he would tie cannibal women to train tracks while cackling and twirling his mustache. And besides the lack of credible motivation, there’s an even bigger logical problem with the movie that goes straight to the reason for its existence: although we might stretch our imagination to believe that the filmmakers might be stupid enough to shoot their own crimes, no one would take valuable time that could be spent fleeing for his life to film the cannibals’ final revenge against his friends.

Of course, the worst part of the movie, which gives it its enduring infamy, are the gruesome animal killings, highlighted by the nauseating decapitation and evisceration of a giant river turtle. So many people miss the point of the objections to the animal cruelty that it’s necessary to elucidate it again. It does not matter that most of the animals were eaten after they were killed, or that most of them died quickly and relatively painlessly. The point is that, if it was truly necessary to the story, the violence against animals could have been realistically staged, just as the violence against humans was. Deodato deliberately—and repeatedly—chose to have the animals actually killed on-camera precisely because of the effect he knew it would have on the audience. He wanted to generate shock, outrage, and—ultimately and especially—income. Animal cruelty objectionable because of what is says about humans who perpetrate it; the “cruelty” side of the equation is far more saddening than the “animal” side. (To his credit, Deodato is on record as regretting shooting these scenes).

Leave the animal killings out of the movie, however, and Cannibal Holocaust would be lost in the trashpile of Italian cannibal movies, no more remembered than Cannibal Ferox or Emanuele and the Last Cannibals. The film is an effective sickie, but it’s morally repugnant and, as many have correctly pointed out, ironically hypocritical in its insincere attack on the media’s tendency to focus on (and even instigate) violence. The thesis that modern industrialized man is as savage as the Amazonian cannibal tribe is facile at best, but the only way that Deodato can prove it is to make himself into a monster. It’s as if I said to you, “people are inherently vicious,” and then proved my point by punching you in the nose. You’d probably be more angry at me than convinced of my theory, which is how I feel about Cannibal Holocaust.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a weird movie with an awkward narrative, which Deodato makes all the more effective with his grimy sheen of documentary realism, while Riz Ortolani’s unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score provides a weird undercurrent.”–Sean Axmaker, Digital Delirium (DVD)