Tag Archives: 1983

236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

Mo

“Any way you slice it, The Boxer’s Omen (1983) is a massive experience. For some, it’s massively unpleasant. For others, it’s massively bizarre. And for adventurous horror fans craving intensity, it’s massively entertaining.”–Stephen Gladwin, liner notes to the Image Entertainment DVD release of The Boxer’s Omen

DIRECTED BY: Chih-Hung Kuei

FEATURING: Kao Fei [AKA Phillip Ko, Phillip Kao], Bolo Yeung, Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong

PLOT: Chan Hung, a gangster, sees his brother paralyzed in a kickboxing match with a cheating Thai fighter. Later, he is rescued from a rival’s ambush by an apparition of a Buddhist monk. Chan Hung travels to Thailand to challenge the evil boxer, but while there he discovers that a local Buddhist temple has prophesied that he will defeat a black magician who has waged a longstanding war against the holy sect.

Still from The Boxer's Omen [Mo] (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio made a fortune in the 1970s with their cheaply produced, widely-distributed kung fu films, and came to dominate the local film industry. By the early 1980s the kung fu fad had died out, however, and the studio started losing ground to competitors who came to represent the “Hong Kong new wave.” The Boxer’s Omen comes from a period when the studio was searching for a new cash cow; horror films were a natural candidate. Expensive (by the Brothers’ standards) spectacles like Omen did not help stop the studio’s slide, however, and in 1986 the Shaws stopped making feature films altogether and segued into television production.
  • “Black magic” films had been a popular Shaw Brothers subgenre since 1975’s Black Magic. They were set in East Asian countries like Thailand (exotic locales to the cosmopolitan Hong Kong set) and involved evil spells that required gross-out ingredients like pubic hair, human milk, and vomit.
  • Mo (The Boxer’s Omen‘s Chinese title) is actually a sequel to Gu (1981), a film that is seldom seen in the West.
  • This was the second-to-last film in the career of director Chih-Hung Kuei, who had a “respectable” exploitation movie résumé that included “Brucesplotation” hits like Iron Dragon Strikes Back (with Bruce Li), the creature feature Killer Snakes, and the women’s prison sleaze of Bamboo House of Dolls. After retiring from directing in 1984 he immigrated to the United States and opened a pizza parlor (!)
  • This film was legendary, but almost never seen in the U.S. until Image Entertainment’s 2006 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Covered in maggots which buzz like bees, a nude woman is magically birthed from the sealed corpse of a crocodile after an elaborate and disgusting ritual involving (no joke) a regurgitated chicken rectum.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eel vomiting; flying-head strangler; nude crocodile zombie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDThe Boxer’s Omen is pure Shaw Brothers desperation and delirium, an excessive black magic oddity that holds nothing back, with gratuitous nudity, kung fu, rough sex, vulgar Buddhist mysticism, and ample viscera.


Original trailer for Mo

COMMENTS:If you’re looking to take a break from “deeper” weird Continue reading 236. THE BOXER’S OMEN (1983)

WOODY ALLEN’S ZELIG (1983)

Zelig (1983) finds in full experimental mode. This mockumentary was released a full year before Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is often cited as an innovation. With a more cultured, refined approach and subject matter, it is relatively easy to ascertain why the quaint Zelig lacked the broader appeal of the loud Spinal Tap. Although the earlier film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, numerous critics pointed out that it is an extended single joke. Of course, the same might be said of Spinal Tap, but its celebration of heavy metal culture does give it a more extensive quota of memorable lines and puns—and nothing against that.

Yet, even in his most experimental film, Woody Allen continues to speak solely in his own voice. Indeed, he may be the most personal American filmmaker to date. Zelig charmingly plots out the life of “human chameleon” Leonard Zelig. In doing so, it follows the gimmick of 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: teleporting its protagonist into yesteryear’s newsreel footage, beginning with the 1920s. As in Midnight In Paris (2011), we are introduced to icons of the jazz age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both films, Allen’s approach to the pre-WWII era is paradoxically fawning, clear-eyed, and critical. He is consistent in expressing his loves and obsessions, although he does so with more subtlety, and better, in the earlier film. Smartly, he minimizes the pathos and so is more aligned with the spirit of in Zelig (Paris was sentimental like ). Like those silent clowns, Allen’s art is a guardian for his preoccupations.

Susan Sontag informs us: “Zelig was the phenomenon of the 20s,” and that “according to Saul Bellow, Zelig was amusing, but at the same time, touched a nerve in people perhaps in a way in which they did not want to be touched.” It is not surprising that Allen casts a critical Freudian eye on social conventions of America’s past. As a character, Leonard Zelig literally mirrors Western neuroses. As a compositional image—and this film is about image—Zelig is the guy with the vacant stare in the photograph’s bent corner. A non-personality, Zelig becomes the film’s co-personality. The eternally underrated Mia Farrow gives comic zip to both Zelig and “The Changing Man” film housing him. The film’s most animated scenes are on the therapy couch, where she becomes Zelig’s reflection, peeking through the corner of her glasses with a “you want to go to bed with me? But, I’m not pretty” look as she adjusts herself at the edge of the seat.

Allen compares Zelig to a character out of Kafka (along with Freud, another obsession). Indeed, Zelig’s transformations are more sepia insect than Technicolor chameleon, and the community’s response to him is one of initial curiosity, followed by reaching for the insecticide.

Still from Zelig (1983)Zelig leaps from hobnobbing with William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin to becoming an anonymous speck in the Nazi machine. After he is cured, Zelig becomes the provocative intellectual hated by American working class heroes. Naturally, he is rehabilitated after his fall from grace, rendering his idiosyncratic, celluloid promenade as an archival blueprint for precision in poignancy.

Allen is hardly a model of American filmmaking. He is New York, not Hollywood, and never attended film school; but his body of work stands as a unique immersion into the study of film. In his studies, he avoids the pratfalls of being too sentimental (Chaplin) or too glacial (). Once Allen made it clear that he would not be contained by our “funny man” category, he composed his own parties, showing up in a plethora of hats and suits: warm, beautifully bleak, elitist, anti-elitist, nostalgic, and modern. Like Zelig himself, Allen revels in his own contradictions with individualistic conscientiousness. In other words, Allen is always authentically Allen. Zelig is a testament to that.

LIST CANDIDATE: TWICE UPON A TIME (1983)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Korty, Charles Swenson, Bill Couturié (“adult” version)

FEATURING: Voices of Lorenzo Music, Marshall Efron, Judith Kahan, James Cranna, Julie Payne, Hamilton Camp, Paul Frees

PLOT: With the help of a fairy godmother and a blundering superhero, two dreamland misfits try to stop the wicked Synonamess Botch from detonating nightmare bombs.

Still from Twice Upon a Time (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The mix of a crazy dream/fairytale plot with luminous cutout animation that often evokes surrealist collage landscapes—the cartoon characters might find themselves inside a clock that looks like a Leonardo da Vinci notebook page, on a frozen beach with body parts sticking out of the sand, or attacked by office supplies—makes Twice Upon a Time a one-of-a-kind oddball adventure. The legendary backstory involving the film’s longtime unavailability, kid-unfriendly profanity, competing versions, and accusations of censorship (which turned out to be reverse censorship) doesn’t hurt Time‘s cult credentials, either.

COMMENTS: Coming out during Disney’s nadir, when cartoon features were out-of-fashion, Twice Upon a Time was simultaneously a throwback and an innovation. The movie was painstakingly animated through the never before (or since) used process of “Lumage,” where plastic cutouts are placed on a light table and filmed. The process makes the cutouts seem to glow at times, as well as creating planes that impart a weird three-dimensionality to the images. The effect has been compared to stained glass, although the movie’s soft palettes are more reminiscent of gently glowing pastel watercolors. Besides the immensely detailed painted backdrops, the cartoon characters of dreamland also frequently tromp on top of black and white stills representing the “real” world. The resulting work comprises shots of extreme beauty (the shadowy, tiered towers of Murkworks, contrasted with the construction-paper chaos of Frivoili) and wit (the camera pulls back to reveal that the hedges the villains are trotting through form a skull and crossbones, and the submersible tottering on top of a pile of junk is surely a tribute to stylistic precursor Yellow Submarine).

Structurally, the narrative can be charitably described as anarchic, with archetypal characters who are as two-dimensional as the plastic cels they’re made from. Our misfit heroes, a shape-shifting “all-purpose animal” and a mute esque Tramp, are joined by a Jewish fairy godmother (“FGM” for short), an aspiring actress, a superhero with a learner’s permit, and other jokey stock characters. Opposing them is nightmare tycoon Synonamess Botch (with “Nixon & Agnew ’68” tattooed on his chest), his fleet of  vulture bombers, a pet rat (presciently named “Ratatouille”), and “head scream writer” Scuzzbopper. Together, the opposing sides war for dominance in the minds of the monochrome denizens of our world, know to them as the “Rushers of Din” (as accurate a three-word summary of modern humans as I can imagine).

Many find the plot, which involves the necessity of stopping time by stealing a piece of a cosmic clock, confusing; but although the setup may be rushed, it falls far short of being truly baffling. Some very bad, rejected-for-a-Rocky-sequel 80s pop music over the credits detracts from the project’s artistic credibility, but helps fix it in its era. Despite minor reservations, Twice Upon a Time is a great, overlooked, imaginative oddity that is well worth rediscovering. It’s so strange that it’s hard to believe executive producer George Lucas ever gave the project his blessing (although it’s easy to see why Mr. Blockbuster didn’t champion it after it breezed through theaters, making barely a ripple in the public consciousness).

Twice Upon a Time‘s “censorship” flap merits an explanation. Per director John Korty, the story is that after the movie bombed, producer/screenwriter Bill Couturié  re-recorded some of Marshall Efron’s dialogue with “dirty” jokes (what today would amount to PG-13 rated scatology, mostly), with the studio’s blessing but without Korty’s knowledge or approval. The intent, apparently, was to re-position the flop as a cult movie for high school and college-aged kids. This “dirty” cut of the film originally played on HBO; when Korty discovered the fact, he supplied the network with the “clean” masters, which they then started airing. Angry viewers assumed that HBO had re-edited the film to remove the profanity and make it kid-friendly. Actually, it was a case of reverse-censorship: the racy material was inserted into the original to spice it up, not removed to appease the bluenoses. (And there was some mild profanity in the “clean” version, too). I prefer Korty’s cut (I don’t find fart noises all that funny), but they are not very different (the two versions are more than 95% identical). Still, the idea of a “blue” variation of an animated children’s movie is titillating. Wouldn’t it be a treat if studios went back and re-recorded a profane version of every flop kids’ movie?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in all honesty, it is never boring. Strange, confusing and color-convulsing, yes. Dull, never.”–Mike Watt, “Fervid Filmmaking

ANGST (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Gerald Kargl

FEATURING: Erwin Leder, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Silvia Rabenreither

PLOT: Immediately after his release from prison for attempted murder, a would-be serial killer fulfills his desires when he happens upon an isolated villa in the German countryside inhabited by a family of three.

Still from Angst (1983)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: By grounding the viewer so thoroughly and painfully within the borderline mundanity of the killer’s violence, Gerald Kargl fuses the horrific with the blasé and leaves us shocked at the permeating numbness. Over the course of a grueling day of murder—with all the blood, strangulation, and heavy lifting which that entails—we are left as enervated as the main character. Nonetheless, he charges forward from setback to bloody setback: menaced by children in yellow rain coats, showing off the contents of his car trunk to patrons of a nearby café, and finally escaping in coattails.

COMMENTS: Imagine yourself trapped in one spot. You cannot move your gaze, and the world wrenches around you as it seems you’re traveling — to a prison, a coffee lounge, a taxi, and finally, a desolate house. While trapped, you hear the plinking of water drops, the rattling of keys, and the soft voice of someone craving your trust and sympathy—someone who talks of little other than lust for murder, destruction, and revenge. Sitting through Angst from beginning to end is a challenge. Though we are only briefly locked in this man’s world, we see nothing but him and his horrible deeds, and hear nothing but his wretched thoughts, from start to finish.

Angst is more unrelenting in its focus than any serial-killer biopic I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Once we meet the film’s antihero (an emaciated, menacing Erwin Leder), the camera virtually never leaves him; those few times when it does, it focuses on nearby people—potential victims—who eyeball the camera suspiciously, or are being visually dissected as the killer contemplates what he may or may not do to them. The director is trying to break into this man’s mind. The killer is allowed a nearly uninterrupted inner monologue, so that he might explain himself to the viewer. There are hovering high-angles and poking low-angles as the camera attempts to capture him in a way that makes sense. Indeed, there are even long stretches with the camera fixed on him as he flees or pursues, never shifting in its view of his face or body as the world gyrates around him. The screen pulses and frames skip, as if the lens is trying to force itself through to enter the psychopath’s heart. It is all to no avail, as this is a man who makes sense only to himself.

Shot on a tiny budget, Angst is the somewhat true-to-life story of the murders committed by Austrian serial killer Werner Kniesek. Gerald Kargl primarily made commercials before writing and directing this movie (his one and only feature length film). The cinematographer, Zbigniew Rybczynski, cut his teeth shooting short films for various Eastern European luminaries (note: the same year he shot Angst, he won an Oscar for Best Short Film for “Tango”; shortly afterwards he began a prolific career in the music video biz). When this pair teamed up with composer Klaus Schulze (of Tangerine Dream fame), their combined efforts culminated in something disturbing, cutting edge, and incredibly commercially unviable. Even today Angst feels unsettlingly fresh, approaching the serial killer genre in a manner that not only refuses to glamorize its subject, but also refuses to feign understanding. In the beginning, we know little of this man’s life and desires, but even after spending an exhausting day with him, we are left with no real comprehension of his motives.

DVD DETAILS: Cult Epics has once again given a crackerjack treatment to their latest release. The movie looks almost new, with a crystal clear image throughout. The soundtrack and score are also given their due, with the low-key effects, muffled screams, and furtive words heard softly, but clearly. There are myriad interviews, trailers, and a commentary track. The real gem herein, however, is the forty-page booklet that not only has a number of interesting essays about the movie, but also images and (for the less fluent in German among us) translations of newspaper clippings about the Kniesek murders. This is a must-buy for any fan of the serial killer genre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…disturbing, strangely undervalued and still unflinching shocker… a realistic but oddly heightened experience.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

 

 

LIST CANDIDATE: LA BELLE CAPTIVE (1983)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Mesguich, Gabrielle Lazure, Cyrielle Clair, François Chaumette,

PLOT: A man who works for a mysterious organization meets an alluring woman who may be a vampire, or a ghost, or a dream.

Still from La Belle Captive (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: La Belle Captive is about as weird as they come. We already have two Alain Robbe-Grillet movies on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made, however; Eden and After (which is, believe it or not, even weirder than this one) and L’Immortelle (not as weird, but hypnotically unforgettable), and more are under consideration. Robbe-Grillet is a great, and greatly under-appreciated, Surrealist filmmaker, but we do wonder whether we want to push other movies out of the way to make room for yet another from a director who is already well-represented.

COMMENTS: La Belle Captive is titled after a painting by Belgian Surrealist Rene Margritte. Although there are strange figures on the canvas, a stone and a French horn on fire, the key part of the image is an easel that’s set up in front of a beach landscape. From viewing the painting you cannot be sure if it’s an expertly painted scene that matches the background perfectly, or if it’s an empty frame that acts like a window. The key is that the painting points out its own artifice, a frame inside a frame, with reality clearly lying elsewhere. (Variations on Margritte’s canvas recur throughout the film, including an actual painting which is titled “La Belle Captive, apres Rene Margritte”). Robbe-Grillet frames his story as a dream, but is it really a dream within a dream, or are we merely expected to appreciate what he has captured, and not bother with sorting the reality from the beauty of its expression? Surely the latter is the intent, though no doubt many will find pleasure in “making sense” of the contorted storyline.

Protagonist Walter works for a mysterious organization, taking his orders from Sara, a cycle-riding leather goddess. At a nightclub Walter sees a fetching blonde; he dances with her, but she will not tell him her name or phone number, and disappears when his back is turned. Later that night Walter receives a commission from Sara to deliver a letter to a senator, but as he is driving to his rendezvous he sees a woman lying crumpled, handcuffed and bloody in the road. Who should it be but, naturally, the enchantress who left him at the nightclub? She is conscious but unable to speak, and he helps her into her car and drives to a nearby chateau seeking help. The gentlemen there are at some kind of party and, to his horror, seem to believe he has come offering the half-comatose girl as a sexual plaything. They give the girl a drink, which appears to be blood in a martini glass. Finally, a man comes downstairs announcing he is a doctor and that he will treat the girl; he takes Walter and the woman to a room and, instead of examining her, locks them both inside. The captive frees herself from her handcuffs and makes love to Walter, ending their coupling by biting him on the neck. In the morning Walter wakes up to an empty house, and spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what has happened to him. Was the woman the ghost of a local suicide who haunts these roads searching for men to corrupt? Was she actually the young fiancee of the man to whom he was supposed to deliver the letter, and is Walter being set up? And what of the bald, weasel-faced detective (the distinctive Daniel Emilfork, whom many will remember as the dream-stealing mad scientist from The City of Lost Children) who keeps running into Walter, slyly insinuating that he is responsible for girl’s disappearance? Rest assured that no firm answers to these mysteries will be forthcoming by the end of the film.

The theme of the mysterious woman who appears in numerous guises but is never obtained or even fully comprehended by her male admirer is one of Robbe-Grillet’s favorites. His male protagonists are often solid, even dangerous men who find themselves humbled, grasping at a slippery feminine that always squirms out of their grasp. The utter unknowability of the beloved engenders obsession in his characters. In La Belle Captive, Robbe-Grillet explicitly aligns himself with the Surrealists (in case there was ever any doubt) by referencing the works of Margritte. Beauty, love and art cannot be possessed; the joy is in the hunt, and the best we can ever do is to freeze captivating moments of our experience, like a frame set in front of the churning sea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A ripe, hallucinogenic field theory…”–Fernando Croce, Cinepassion (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Hiltzik

FEATURING: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields

PLOT: Eight years after her father and fraternal twin were killed there in a boating accident, introverted teen Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) returns to Camp Arawak alongside her protective cousin and adopted brother, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Children and counselors alike bully the girl for her shyness, but those tormenters soon begin dying under bizarre circumstances. Meanwhile, Angela’s budding romance with a fellow camper awakens her dormant sexuality, and with it troubling memories of what truly happened eight years ago.

Still from Sleepaway Camp (1983)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: By incorporating a wistful portrayal of summer camp into the sleazy slasher mold, Sleepaway Camp offers a uniquely schizophrenic experience of a horror film. Furthermore, its plot ultimately explodes in an extremely violent and sexual metaphor of an ending, which remains controversial to this day.

COMMENTS: Riding on the coattails of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp neither invented the slasher genre nor the idea of the summer camp as a killing ground. Furthermore, Hiltzik’s film falls short of its predecessors through amateurish performances, disjointed storytelling, and deaths that are slightly more goofy than frightful. In the annals of ‘80s horror, Sleepaway Camp therefore seems less an original than a misbegotten child.

However, by combining the juvenility of his setting and main characters with the adult themes of a slasher, Hiltzik still produces a memorably off-kilter film. As visceral moments like the disfiguring of a pedophile crudely segue into mirthful scenes of camp life—such as Ricky pranking a nerd named Mozart—Sleepaway Camp embraces rather than hides its incoherence. In turn, Camp Arawak becomes an unreal place where the vulgar and innocent both exist, not in conflict, but as mismatched companions to each other. Sleepaway Camp’s lack of style thereby becomes its signature style, creating an unwieldy and dissonant tone that, in the end, perfectly reflects the troubled, divided mind of its killer.

That killer’s identity is now the stuff of legend, in a final twist that makes an already fractured story snap. Through that one last disturbing image, the film transcends its low budget and even lower quality to become a classic oddity among slasher fans. While Sleepaway Camp is not one of the best horror films out there, it continues to be one of the weirdest.

Shout! Factory’s recent “Sleepaway Camp Collector’s Edition” comes with an array of extras, two of which could qualify for a list of 366 Weird Special Features. The first is a short made by sleepawaycampmovies.com’s webmaster Jeffy Hayes starring Sleepaway Camp supporting actor Karen Fields, who murders a deadbeat dad and his girlfriend using, among other weapons, a turkey baster. The second is an uncomfortably earnest music video featuring the vocal talents of Jonathan Tiersten, the now middle-aged actor who played Ricky. As Tiersten somberly croons in an empty theater, and Fields wields a deadly curling iron in a nod to her famous role, one wonders if the two still haven’t gotten over their roles in Sleepaway Camp.

Joining those shorts are several bonuses that more directly relate to Sleepaway Camp, including an album of on-set photographs, multiple commentaries, and a 45-minute documentary about the making of the movie. Each of those extras show the person who loves Sleepaway Camp most may be its star; Felissa Rose beams nostalgically while recounting the friendships, drama, and fun she experienced during filming. Despite the presence of cameras and microphones, production stills of the teenage cast smiling in those idyllic woods and cabins suggest a summer to remember for decades to come.

LIST CANDIDATE: MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam

FEATURING, , , Terry Jones,

PLOT: Monty Python discusses life, from the sanctity of every sperm to the rudeness of the Grim Reaper, in a series of sketches.

Still from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monty Python’s films, in general, present a challenge to crafting a list of weird movies. Python pioneered modern trends in surreal humor, but they were so successful at popularizing their craft that their once avant-garde style has become virtually mainstream. And, among their three original-material feature films, The Meaning of Life presents a particular challenge: it’s easily the weirdest of the trio, but also quite less impressive and consistently hilarious than either Holy Grail or Life of Brian. Should Meaning of Life make it ahead of Grail and Brian because it’s a slightly weirder entry, should we select one of the better known classics to represent the Python project, or do all the movies deserve to make it?

COMMENTS: Made nine years after the comedy troupe bid farewell to their hit television series, The Meaning of Life resembles a big-budget, R-rated reunion episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The “search for the meaning of life” structure is almost as loose as the themes that linked their television sketches, and the show’s stream-of-consciousness style (a maternity-room sketch on “the miracle of birth” yields to a satire of Catholic birth control policy, which inspires a joke about Protestant prudishness, which segues into a Church service where the pastor prays “ooh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge…”) remains intact. The boys’ wit is still rapier sharp–it’s actually more focused at times, blatantly anticlerical and socially aware—and the team immediately regained their comic chemistry as if they’d never been apart. This being a revue-style construction, the results are understandably uneven, but the irreverent tone is always winning. The Python’s approach to comedy is so silly and fun-loving that even the most cutting and grotesque jokes only irritate the starchiest of stuffed shirts. If there is a clunker in the bunch it’s the opener, a fifteen minute standalone Terry Gilliam short titled “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” about a mutiny among a group of older workers at a financial services corporation that turns into a pirate fantasy. Watching this bit, you may think you’ve accidentally put the wrong disc in your player, but stay with it; after “Assurance” ends, we’re treated to the sight of the Python faces stuck on goldfish bodies as they swim around in a restaurant tank and wonder about the meaning of life. Affecting a French accent, Eric Idle then sings the “Meaning of Life” theme song to some typically crazy Gilliam cutout animation (including a machine that stamps out nude clone families wearing Mickey Mouse ears), and we’re ready for the show to begin. The sketches fans talk about most are the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number (with its chorus line of high-kicking nuns) and the unforgettably vile (and funny) “Mr. Creosote” sequence, about a projectile-vomiting glutton who gorges himself at a posh restaurant until he explodes. The movie also features some of the most unapologetically and outlandishly surreal bits in the Python canon: a pink-suited man emerges from a refrigerator to serenades an old woman with a lecture on cosmology, as a means of convincing her to become a living organ donor. Heaven is envisioned as a hotel where it’s Christmas every day, with an eternal floor show featuring sequined angels parading about in Santa suits with exposed breasts. The film’s interlude (helpfully legended “the Middle of the Film”) features three characters straight out of a Salvador Dalí painting (if Dalí had painted punk transvestites with faucets attached to their nipples) wondering “where is the fish?,” a sublimely random and irritating bit of performance art that the Python-faced goldfish cheer as “terrific!” Scenes like these, together with the mild blasphemy and uncharacteristic grossness of Mr. Creosote, make The Meaning of Life the Python’s most outrageous cinematic effort, if not their funniest. It’s as disorganized and confusing as life itself—a near masterpiece of irreverence. And, true to the film’s promise, the meaning of life is revealed at the end, so no one can claim to be cheated.

Universal Studio’s “30th Anniversary” Blu-ray/DVD combo release of The Meaning of Life includes all the features from the 2003 DVD (including the Jones/Gilliam commentary track) and adds a new bonus feature in a one-hour reunion roundtable by the surviving Pythons (minus the deceased Graham Chapman, obviously, and with busy Eric Idle chiming in via Skype).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a weird kind of fun.”–Paul Chambers, “Movie Chambers” (Blu-ray)

154. VIDEODROME (1983)

“My early drafts tend to get extreme in all kinds of ways: sexually, violently, and just in terms of weirdness. But I have to balance this weirdness against what an audience will accept as reality. Even in the sound mix, when we’re talking about what sort of sound effects we want for the hand moving around inside the stomach slit, for example; we could get really weird and use really loud, slurpy, gurgly effects, but I’m playing it realistically. That is to say, I’m giving it the sound it would really have, which is not much. I’m presenting something that is outrageous and impossible, but I’m trying to convey it realistically.”–David Cronenberg on Videodrome

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Jack Creley, Sonja Smits

PLOT: Searching for the next level of violent and pornographic entertainment, CIVIC-TV president Max Renn discovers a pirate broadcast called “Videodrome” that depicts the torture and killing of nude men and women in an undisclosed location. Renn is thrilled by what he sees as the future of television, a savage show with no plot, characters, or budget, but his interest in in the program becomes more personal than professional as he watches it with radio personality Nikki Brand and develops his own taste for sadomasochism. Meanwhile, Renn explores the origins of “Videodrome” and its connection to media prophet Professor Brian O’Blivion, whose lectures about the relationship between the human mind and televisual media suggest “Videodrome”’s influence over Renn goes much deeper than he realizes.

Still from Videodrome (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • David Cronenberg’s inspiration for Videodrome came from his childhood experiences of watching televisions pick up distant, distorted signals after the local stations had gone off the air. He imagined what it would be like to see something obscene or illegal on the screen, and he wondered whether he would turn away from the sight or keep watching.
  • CityTV, a Toronto-based independent television station that controversially broadcast softcore porn movies late at night in the 1970s, was the inspiration for Videodrome‘s “Civic TV.”
  • Special makeup effects designer Rick Baker began work on Videodrome shortly after winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, the first award ever given in that category. He was awarded for his work on the film An American Werewolf in London.
  • The character of Professor Brian O’Blivion was loosely based on Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory. McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message,” echoes of which can be seen in Videodrome. Cronenberg may have been a student of McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto.
  • Videodrome was a box office bomb, earning only $2 million at theaters (it cost $6 million to make). It has since become a cult film.
  • At the time of this writing Universal Pictures lists a Videodrome remake as “in development.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Videodrome is full of unforgettable scenes, from Max Renn inserting a gun into his stomach to Barry Convex’s death by cancer-inducing bullets, but it is Renn’s sexual encounter with his television that best captures the hallucinatory, philosophical, and disturbingly erotic aspects of the film. After watching footage of Nicki Brand strangling Prof. O’Blivion, Renn is drawn to his television by Brand’s playful but insistent voice, as her lips grow to fill the screen. Soon, Renn is close enough to reach out and touch the device, which throbs and grows veins under his fingers like an engorged organ. Between rasps and sighs, the television says, “I want you, Max,” as Renn caresses its frame, becoming more aggressive and aroused. The screen begins to bulge under Renn’s groping hands as he leans forward, his face disappearing into the screen’s disembodied lips while they slurp and moan in ecstasy. Though Brand initially seduces Renn, by the end the television has become the willing object of his lust. Renn is not a passive observer of the screen, nor is his television a lifeless machine. Rather, Renn’s craving for the television enters the device and animates it, infusing it with so much desire that it is able to desire Renn in return. This giving of life to the mechanical captures Videodrome’s most salient theme, the idea that technology is not separate from humanity but instead represents an expansion upon the human form, a “new flesh” that may either subjugate or liberate us all.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Videodrome[1] is weird from the moment it introduces its titular snuff program, not just because of the violence it depicts but also because of the characters’ casual acceptance of that violence. Renn and Brand’s unreserved fascination with the “Videodrome” broadcast places them in an alternate moral universe, one where murder is simply the next step for television; the viewer is displaced from his or her own ethical reality.

That disorientation only increases as Videodrome takes hold of Renn, inducing horrible visions that further loosen his and the viewer’s grasp of what is real. In those hallucinations, Renn is subjected to brainwashing and disfigurement that warp him on a mental and physical level, shaking the sense of himself that is his most basic link to the real world. In one scene Barry Convex forces a videocassette into the vaginal slit that Renn has grown on his stomach, adding overtones of surrealism and rape to the story. It is an assault on not just the body and the mind but also on reality, an experience that shatters the protagonist and the viewer in a way few other films can match.


Original trailer for Videodrome

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Videodrome, a talk show host asks, “Don’t you feel [violent and sexual] shows contribute to a social climate of Continue reading 154. VIDEODROME (1983)

  1. Videodrome is used in three senses in this essay. When italicized (Videodrome), the word means the movie directed by David Cronenberg. “Videodrome” is placed in quotes to signify the pirate broadcast Renn watches. When not in quotes or italics, Videodrome refers to the abstract entity or idea of the Videodrome. []

LIST CANDIDATE: THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (1983)

Les Trois Couronnes du Matelot

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Raoul Ruiz

FEATURING: Jean-Bernard Guillard, Philippe Deplanche

PLOT: A weary sailor promises a desperate student passage on a sailing ship, but first he

Still from Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983)

relates tales of his surreal adventures in ports around the world.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s easier to think of reasons Three Crowns of the Sailor should make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies than reasons it shouldn’t. It won’t make it on the first ballot because it lacks a “wow” factor; with its subtle, literary tone, it’s more of a slow burn movie, one that seems likely to grow in stature the more one thinks about it. Time will tell whether it will end up Listed among the best; in the meantime, director Raoul Ruiz has better known movies that may deserve Listing before this one.

COMMENTS: In the first post-credits sequence of Three Crowns of the Sailor, a student is discussing his crimes in the first person; as he wanders the streets in post-offense panic, he begins talking about himself in the third person. This is an appropriate digression, because in Crowns one character is always turning into another. Situations, dialogues and symbols recur with variations; one of the crew of the cursed ship Funchalese will often blame his actions on “the other,” some perpetual double always hiding out below decks. The film’s main themes are storytelling (stories are told inside of other stories), forgetfulness, otherness, and escape, and totems also show up across the seaman’s wandering tales, especially jewelry and money. The nameless sailor continually borrows money from his seafaring brethren, keeping himself in a constant state of debt that ties him to the ship. Each of the episodes the sailor relates are absurd—such as the time he fell for the exotic dancer with only one orifice, or when his shipmates give birth to worms through their boils—but they are also verbally and intellectually playful, inspired almost as much by Jorge Luis Borges as by Luis Buñuel. Each of the sailors is tattooed with a single letter, to stress that they are all individual elements that go together to form a sentence and eventually a story. Our old salt is rescued by a child who lives inside a vast house with edges he has never been able to locate in his explorations. The sailor tells him his life story, but the boy informs him that those anecdotes have already been told in the books that line the house’s infinite walls. Other memorable conceits include children chanting the 365 names of the male organ outside a bordello window, a sentence served in prison with a guru who teaches the inmates the basics of theology, and a second prophet, a black supremacist who requests three Danish crowns. The sailor’s bizarre tour of the world’s exotic ports plays with reality in a way that’s deliberately intended to confound; the framing story where he encounters the student adheres to a fantastical folktale logic that makes for a pleasing contrast. If you’re in the mood for literate confusion with a vein of humor as black and dry as gunpowder, you couldn’t do much better than Three Crowns of a Sailor.

Incredibly, Three Crowns of a Sailor was made for broadcast on French television. According to Ruiz the story was inspired by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and a Chilean legend about a ship of the dead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…should delight students of semiotics and probably no one else.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who explained it featured “a lot of mystic characters, events, Latin America ‘bordelieras’, beautiful ‘putas’, and when you see worms squeezed out of boils on a sailor’s chest, and later these worms metamorphosing into poisonous butterflies killing the birds who eat them, you understand that this movie is to be mentioned here.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

111. SANS SOLEIL (1983)

AKA Sunless

“It is tempting, and not unjustified, to speculate that one reason for Marker’s growing visibility and popularity is that, as a culture, we have now finally caught up with works that once seemed like dispatches from another planet…”–Catherine Lupton, “Chris Marker: Memory’s Apostle” (2007 Criterion Collection essay)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alexandra Stewart (narrator, English language version)

PLOT: Essentially plotless, Sans Soleil is structured as a series of letters sent from around the world by a fictional director addressed to the anonymous female narrator. The footage shown ranges from the banal to the incredible, and each image sparks a meditation from the letter writer. Among other sights, we view Japanese praying at a shrine to dead cats, the imaginary nightmares of sleeping subway riders, and the bloody slaughter of a giraffe by poachers.

Still from Sans Soleil (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sandor Krasna, the cameraman whose letters the unnamed narrator is supposedly reading, is fictional, an alter-ego of reclusive director Chris Maker. The name “Chris Marker” is itself a pseudonym for Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve.
  • Marker has said he was born in Mongolia, a claim some film historians dispute. He was a philosophy student before joining the French resistance during the Nazi occupation. After the war he became a journalist, then a documentary filmmaker.
  • Sans Soleil was Marker’s first personal film after years spent making a series of Marxist political documentaries.
  • The title comes from a song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky; some of the melodies are recreated in nearly unrecognizable electronic versions arranged by Isao Tomita.
  • In one section of the film “Sandor Krasna” has traveled to San Francisco to visit locations from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Remembering the scene where Madeline points to the tree stump, the narrator says “he remembered another film in which this passage was quoted…” The other film, of course, is Marker’s own La Jetée.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Sans Soleil‘s unforgettable scene is the slice in time when a striking-looking young woman in Cape Verde, who knows the camera is pointed at her but demurely refuses to acknowledge it, briefly makes eye contact; Marker highlights the moment, remarking about “the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.” (It’s an inversion of a famous bit from Marker’s La Jetée, where every shot is technically the length of a film frame except for a single glance at the camera). As unexpectedly powerful as this brief moment of eye contact is, it’s unfortunately not so weird. So, for our indelible image we instead turn to the video transformation of the ceramic cat idol into an abstract orange and blue blob, a moment where Marker brings two of the film’s diverse interests into a temporary harmony, illustrating how he weaves his seemingly random obsessions into a coherent tapestry.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Sans Soleil begins with an image of three Icelandic girls and


Clip from Sans Soleil

voiceover narration admitting that the photographer can find no other image to link it to, followed by a brief shot of American warplanes on an aircraft carrier, followed by scenes Japanese commuters napping on a ferry. This ADD documentary changes topics every minute or two, with each brief sequence accompanied by a spoken observation that could be read as profound, poetic, pretentious, or even all three at once. Sans Soleil visits cat shrines, the slaughter of a giraffe, and a monkey porn museum in its wanderings. If that’s not weird enough for you, the film takes time out of its busy schedule to recreate the imaginary nightmares of passengers dozing on a Tokyo subway. All of the scenes are accompanied by freaky synthetic electronic sounds percolating up through a video mix that’s often altered with then-avant-garde video transformation techniques. With their feet nailed to reality, documentaries have to strain hard to escape the bonds of gravity and sail to the heights of weirdness, but Sans Soleil is one experiment in nonfiction that manages to soar effortlessly.

COMMENTS: Essentially, Sans Soleil is an arthouse version of Mondo Cane. (For the record, I Continue reading 111. SANS SOLEIL (1983)