Tag Archives: 1981

CAPSULE: NIGHTDREAMS (1981)

DIRECTED BY: F.X. Pope

FEATURING: Dorothy LeMay, Jennifer West, Andy Nichols

PLOT: Two scientists observe a woman’s erotic dreams.

Still from Nightdreams (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As the first, and very nearly the only, movie to mix hardcore XXX action with dream logic, Nightdreams is a unique beast. As a curiosity piece it’s something to add to your bucket list, but once the novelty of surrealist porn wears off, Nightdreams is not really a great movie—and it’s worse erotica.

COMMENTS: There’s a reason plotted porn movies never took off. Narrative and intense titillation work against each other; each one is a distraction from the other. Even today, directors like who toy with adding explicit sex to their movies make sure that actual acts of penetration and gynecological detail last only for a few seconds, to keep their stories from drifting into a fap-fest. Surrealism and porn don’t really go well together, either; the weird feeling inspired when a cigarette-smoking fish head pops up in bed next to a lovely lady throws cold water on those sexytime cravings. Written by a young “Hustler” copy writer named Jerry Stahl and that magazine’s “Creative Director” (the two would continue their partnership on the XXX cult film Cafe Flesh and the softcore midnight movie Dr. Caligari), Nightdreams was made by smart people slumming in the gutter, anxious to do something erotically different a) to get themselves noticed and b) to keep from getting bored in the repetitive and formulaic world of porno. Of course, porn is repetitive and formulaic for a reason—its function is to expand viewers’ pants, not their intellectual horizons—so, while Nightdreams got some favorable notice in the scuzz press as some sort of prestige sleaze piece, it didn’t exactly found a subgenre of arthouse smut.

Nightdreams stars Dorothy LeMay as the woman whose sexual imagination is so outlandish it’s the subject of a research project by a pair of scientists in lab coats. Strawberry blond LeMay has a real-world, girl-next-door sexiness that’s refreshing compared to the plasticized glamor of today’s porn starlets, but, based on her line readings, an actress she is not. That’s okay, because she appears to enjoy the weird sex (so maybe she is a great actress, after all). Her fantasies involve sex with a Jack-in-the-box (accompanied by creepy anti-erotic laughter), a campfire threesome with two lithe cowgirls (while Wall of Voodoo sings a cool New Wave rendition of “Ring of Fire”), servicing a couple of hookah-smoking sheiks, meeting a man with a fetus in his pants, a pseudo-rape scene over a toilet, and rutting with the Devil in Hell, followed by a romantic coupling with an angelic stud in Paradise. The movie’s most memorable sequence, no doubt, is when Dorothy fellates a living rendition of a Cream of Wheat box while serenaded by a jazz version of “Old Man River.” Her head bobs back and forth to the music, and a piece of toast shows up to accompany the couple on sax. It’s an unusual sight, to say the least. Like most of Nightdreams‘ scenes, it’s too weird to be erotic, but too insistently porn-y to work as an art installation.

The Cream of Wheat scene is a trademark infringement that the Nabisco company would never condone, and I seriously doubt Johnny Cash would license the rights to “Ring of Fire” for a lesbian threesome scene, either. I suspect Nightdreams got away with these infringements because, in 1981, porn was still relatively taboo, and none of the copyright holders would admit to having seen the film.

The IMDB credits “F.X. Pope”  as Nightdreams‘ director, and lists this as an alias for TV and music video director Francis Delia (who has no other porn connections). However, IMDB also lists “F.X. Pope” as one of Sayadian’s pseudonyms—I had always assumed Sayadian was the director because of the style, and also because he indisputably directed the sequel Nightdreams 2.

Others who worked on Nightdreams include Fast Steppin’ Freddie, Zoot Suit and Pez D. Spencer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…definitely the most unusual and unique porn flick I’ve ever seen… a series of weird, funny, sexy, surreal and twisted dreams.”–Goregirl, Goregirl’s Dungeon (DVD)

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

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)

Steve Martin burst onto the national radar with his comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978). He followed that success by starring in his first feature film, the box office bonanza The Jerk (1979) directed by Carl Reiner and co-starring his then-current flame, Bernadette Peters. Although The Jerk was merely crass instead of authentically humorous, Martin and Peters re-teamed for Herbert Ross’ winningly experimental Pennies From Heaven (1981). Predictably, American audiences smelled something new with the film, and stayed away. Many critics were more astute and praised the film, which prompted Martin and Reiner to briefly follow that attempted path of originality in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Man With Two Brains (1983). Alas, like the rest of that decade, what started in a burst of creative energy petered out midway through and succumbed to formula.

Paralleling the rise and fall of the 1980s was Martin’s work as an interesting artist. He simply ceased to take chances after his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and rendered himself irrelevant. In contrast, Peters continued to challenge herself, instead of taking the safe route. It is her post Pennies career, rather than Martin’s, which is more consistently satisfying.

Pennies from Heaven is an idiosyncratic and delightfully grim film, and it separates authentic critics from the weak-kneed boys by defying the rules of filmmaking and confounding those who expect dogmatic adherence to genre expectations (with due apologies to Mr. Ebert). It startles us even today and seems as fresh and innovative as it did thirty years ago.

 wrote the screenplay, which sprang from his 1978 BBC mini-series of the same name. As in his later script for Dreamchild (1985), Potter achieves a level of unsettling emotional intensity rarely achieved in the medium. Potter and Ross recreate a mythological Depression era, lifted straight from the haunting canvases of Edward Hopper, giving the film its unique texture.

Arthur (Martin) is a down on his luck sheet music salesman trying to ply his wares in a corrupt world. Compounding his frustration is his downright Victorian marriage to Joan (). When Arthur encounters the uninhibited Eileen (Peters), he is not above lying about his marital status.

Still from Pennies from HeavenThe characters lip-synch to songs from 1930s musicals and, surprisingly, it works. Often, Pennies From Heaven supersedes its source material because—let’s be frank—do any of us ever watch period musicals for their emotional depth or narrative substance?

A web of lies, back alley abortions, and the rape and the murder of a blind girl are not going to add up to an Astaire/Rogers happy ending. (Arthur and Eileen even take the place of that famous duo by literally stepping into a scene from 1936’s Follow the Fleet).  has an all too brief scene, doing a slimy striptease as only he can. Martin is refreshingly subdued. We root for him and Eileen, despite his manipulations. Harper is equally good, and it’s a revelation of some kind that her character in 1981 is not the one we are asked to identify with or root for, as we would have fifty years earlier.

Pennies From Heaven was a gutsy movie in 1981. It still is, never once succumbing to bland and pretentious realism, while at the same time never alienating us emotionally. Ross, Potter, Martin, Peters, Harper, and Walken all proved that the good and original musical had not gone the way of the dinosaur. Alas, it took European audiences to respond to them.

CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cliff De Young, Barry Humphries, , Charles Gray, Ruby Wax,

PLOT: A young married couple end up in a town that’s actually a giant television network; Janet

Still from Shock Treatment (1981)

is groomed as a celebrity, while Brad becomes a mental patient in a hospital show.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shock Treatment is a cult film even among the tiny subset of cult film enthusiasts. This “sequel” was rejected as a confounding disappointment by most fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but is still vehemently defended by a segment of that fan base. It’s a peculiar exercise in wacky musical satire, for sure, but it lacks the kind of résumé necessary to place it among the most significantly weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS: What would you get if you took The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stripped out Tim Curry‘s domineering performance as the mad scientist transvestite dominatrix, leaving behind only the theater-rock musical numbers and campy supporting players? (On the off-chance you don’t see where I’m going yet, the answer is Shock Treatment). Whereas Rocky Horror was a theatrical flop that organically grew into a cult movie, Shock Treatment was pitched as a deliberate cult movie, but became an instant flop. This delayed follow-up is full of amped-up ideas and energy, but it comes off as cocksure; it’s so convinced its madness is entrancing that it forgets to ground us in its quirky universe. The (confusingly executed) idea is that the entire town of Denton, U.S.A. is a TV studio, with the audience as regular citizens, the stars and staff as sorts of metro officials, and the sponsors as big-money villains manipulating studio politics behind the scenes. The movie throws so many colorful eccentrics at us that every character turns into a minor character, even the leads. Janet (not necessarily the Janet Susan Sarandon played in the previous movie) and Brad (again, a character with the same name but little connection to the original) enter the town’s audience, for unclear reasons, and wind up on a marriage counseling show run by a blind Austrian in an orange thrift-store tuxedo. He hands Brad off to a brother/sister pair of psychiatrists (writer Richard O’Brien, wearing uncomfortable- Continue reading CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

“The montage of hermetic symbols becomes first dreamlike, then menacing; centuries of mystical thought are distilled into a series of voyeuristic fantasies, a kinky psychodrama backed by the carnival strains of a maleficent calliope.  Anger intended Lucifer Rising to stand as a form of ritual marking the death of the old religions like Judaism and Christianity, and the ascension of the more nihilistic age of Lucifer.”–Mikita Brottman in “Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Myriam Gibril, , Marianne Faithfull, Leslie Huggins,

PLOT: Lava erupts and the goddess Isis awakens, calling to her husband Osiris.  In a room far away a man wakes up, sits on a throne in his apartment and somehow spears a woman in a forest far away, then climbs into a bathtub to wash off the blood.  Later, the moon awakens the goddess Lilith, a magick ritual summons Lucifer, and flying saucers appear over Luxor, Egypt.

Still from Lucifer Rising (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Anger originally shot a film called Lucifer Rising (A Love Vision) in 1966, which starred Bobby Beausoleil as Lucifer.  Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole most of the completed footage and hid it; the star contended that Anger merely ran out of money to complete the movie.  Anger then took out an obituary-style ad in The Village Voice announcing his retirement from filmmaking.  Whatever the case, Anger incorporated some of the surviving footage from the original Lucifer into Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969).
  • Anger began working on the project again in 1970 and completed the first cut of Lucifer Rising in 1973, with a score by Jimmy Page.  After a falling out with Page he had the movie re-scored by Bobby Beausoleil.
  • Beausoleil was a Haight-Ashbury musician who came under Anger’s influence during the Summer of Love.  After his falling out with Anger the musician joined Charles Manson’s “Family.” He murdered music teacher Gary Hinman in 1969 over a drug deal gone wrong, and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Anger contacted him to create the music for Lucifer Rising, and he wrote and recorded the score from prison.  The band heard on the soundtrack is comprised of his fellow inmates.
  • Lucifer Rising was completed with funds from the National Film Finance Corporation of Great Britain, prompting some controversy about state funding of a “devil film.”  Anger also received financial assistance from the Germany’s Hamburg Television and the U.S.’ National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Anger did not complete the editing on the final cut until 1981, a decade after work was begun.
  • In one of the film’s final scenes there is a long shot of the Colossi of Memnon in Upper Egypt.  If you look hard you can see a puff of smoke rising in the distant background.  According to Anger, this came from him ceremonially burning the film’s script because the work was now complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The orange UFO flying over the crumbling columns of the Temple of Luxor, then peeking over the shoulder of the colossal ancient statue of Ramses II.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Egyptian gods and goddesses frolicking through a magickal


Clips from Lucifer Rising (unrestored version)

psychedelic landscape, summoning Lucifer and flying saucers.

COMMENTS:  A shaggy-haired man in a robe of many colors caresses a stone column.  A Continue reading 102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

LIST CANDIDATE: POSSESSION (1981)

AKA: The Night the Screaming Stops

DIRECTED BY:  Andrzej Zulawski

FEATURING: Isabelle Adjani, , Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: A secret agent finds himself in a real mess when he hires a detective to track his

Still from POSSESSION (1981)

unfaithful wife.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With campy acting, absurdist elements mixed with existentialist philosophy, arty cinematography, and a story full of all kinds of bizarre and wacky stuff like sex with sea creatures, pointless self mutilation, and people making funny faces for no apparent reason, Possession is practically tailor made to make the List. While I personally don’t think Possession represents a serious effort to convey meaning substantial enough to qualify for the List, I am confident that most viewers will strongly disagree with me.  Possession has a resolute feel about it that will be enough to convince most fans of weird movies that it is a meaningful and significantly weird cinematic endeavor.  Out of deference to those fans I hereby recommend it without reservation.

COMMENTS:  A love triangle among eccentric characters spirals out of control and becomes a love octagon. And the protagonist’s girlfriend is in love with some of kind of octopussy thing.

Sam Neil plays a spy who quits his job to spend more time with his girlfriend and out of wedlock son.  She leaves him, he has a nervous breakdown that leads to a three-week black-out, he meets the new boyfriend who is quite completely insane and possibly a little queer for Sam.

Sam dates his son’s teacher who appears to be his wife’s twin.  Meanwhile the wife leaves the new boyfriend for another boyfriend who is some kind of extraterrestrial octopus, to whom she feeds a succession of uninvited guests, such as a private detective and an insane window inspector (yes that’s right, an insane window inspector.)

In the midst of all of this, the characters physically and verbally convulse in spastic apoplexies Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: POSSESSION (1981)

ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

The life of Elvis Presley is “the” perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.

Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get. He grew up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.

Elvis, the dirt poor mama’s boy, filled his flights of fancy with whipped cream dreams of being a movie star more than anything else; but it was his voice, his extrovert sexual chemistry, and being in the right place at the right time, coupled with his insatiable, singular drive, and securing shrewd management, that catapulted him into the status of an American icon.

Still from Elvis (1979)One element that is sorely missing from all of the films and documentaries on him was Elvis’ early sense of perfection in the recording studios. He often demanded up to forty takes on one song.

Elvis was one of the first and certainly the biggest artist whose career was built on eclecticism. The Elvis Presley persona was birthed from what he knew and what he wanted to be in his Walter Mitty-like romantic fantasies. Elvis was part Mahalia Jackson (his gospel recordings are second only to hers), part Dean Martin, part James Dean, part Marlon Brando, and part Rudolph Valentino. Later, both Sammy Davis and Liberace would be added to the mix.

As archaic as the myth and screen presence of silent screen Valentino seems now, its Continue reading ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS [STORIE DI ORDINARIA FOLLIA] (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Marco Ferreri

FEATURING: Ben Gazarra, Ornella Muti

PLOT: Alcoholic skid-row poet Charles Serking (a pseudonym for Charles Bukowski, on

Still from Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)

whose stories the film is based) drinks, writes poetry, has bizarre sex with a small harem of loose women, and finally falls in love with a beautiful but self-destructive prostitute.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Though no movie where a barstool patron calmly inserts a giant safety pin through her cheeks can be said to be unweird, Tales doesn’t go over-the-top in weirdness, and doesn’t compensate with exceptional insight or drama.

COMMENTS: Tales of Ordinary Madness’ greatest asset is the fact that it recreates the feeling of sitting on a bar stool listening to a charming, plastered braggart tell tall tales pulled from a head full of hazy, half-remembered adventures.  The first sequence illustrates the method.  Bleary eyed, brown-bagged bottle in hand, a bored Serking stumbles out of a poetry reading and discovers a runaway nymphette has set up a makeshift bedroom, complete with clothesline hung with her dainties, in an antechamber of the deserted performance hall.  “Are you real?” he asks as a prelude to pedophilic seduction. She answers in the affirmative, but we have our doubts—even though she seemingly leaves him a pair of panties and takes a bus ticket.  That’s not even the most improbable of the soused author’s sexcapades, which include stalking a woman who later claims she likes to be raped, having a beautiful call girl pay him for sex so he will ruin her for her clients, and trying to re-enter the womb with the help of a game, dumpy housewife.  Each vignette has the feeling of something that might have happened, but not quite in the way it’s told to us. When Serking gets his break and is sent to the writer’s big leagues, the paid fellowship gig involves sitting in an office cubicle in a literary assembly line under the sickly green glow of a fluorescent tube.  Throughout the film, we see Serking engaging in some increasingly odd adventure that passes out before it gets too strange. He then wakes up alone, as if he’s sobered up and reality has reset itself.  Besides boozing and womanizing, Serking occasionally writes poetry, although it can turn Sam Spade-ish: “Los Angeles… some call it Lost Angels.  Me, I was just another one of the lost, back where I belonged…” Ben Gazarra goes all-in for the role, and a less committed performance might have wrecked the film.  With a winning smile beneath a ragged beard, he delivers his street poetry in a boozy, bemused baritone that conveys more hard-earned wisdom than is actually contained in the naive romanticism of the script.  Exotic Ornella Muti is more luminous and intoxicating than the glow of a neon beer sign in a dim bar, and the series of increasingly shocking body mutilations she goes through penetrate the heart far more than Serking’s doggerel.  The movie’s principal problem is its unreflecting over-eagerness to buy into the “tragic artist drowns his sorrows in a river of pleasure” mythology.  The portrait is of a young male poet’s fondest fantasy: be fashionably sad, drink all day, bang out a few sentimental lines every now and then, and beautiful women will throw themselves at you.  The layer of grime necessary to cut the glare of the glamor is missing: Gazarra is too healthy, too vital, too clear headed, too able to shrug off the whiskey and get an erection whenever he needs one.  He only vomits once.  But perhaps that’s all part of the movie’s “it really happened, but not quite the way I’m telling it now” stylistics.

Charles Bukowski’s life was also the subject of a more conventional and accessible film, Barfly (1987), with scruffy Mickey Rourke looking more beaten down and low-rent than Gazarra’s relatively presentable portrayal.  More recently, Matt Damon tackled a Bukowskiesque figure in Factotum (2005).  Bukowski himself reportedly did not like Tales, and some critics complain that this reverent work misses out on the writer’s subtlety and undercurrent of irony.  I suspect, to the contrary, that the movie captures the Bukowski project too perfectly.  Like a lesser William S. Burroughs, this is an artist whose literary reputation comes from his tormented persona rather than from his actual writings.  This narcissistic artistic fantasy, where warts are redrawn as beauty marks and paraded as badges of authenticity, makes Bukowski’s personal mythologizing look too transparent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere inside its unworkable blend of pretension and pornography, there’s a serious film about art and sexual abandon struggling to get out… concentrates solely on the lurid aspects of Mr. Bukowski’s writing and exaggerates these so greatly that all else is lost.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen.  Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery).  The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, David Warner, , Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, , Katherine Helmond,

PLOT:  11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology.  One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape.  He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.”  It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age.  Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
  • Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil.  The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
  • The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
  • Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie.  Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
  • Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
  • Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil.  The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene.  His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
  • A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology


Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits

wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design.  As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares.  As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”

COMMENTS: Sandwiched between the Biblical parody of Life of Brian (1979) and the Continue reading 37. TIME BANDITS (1981)