Tag Archives: 1985

340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

“The film contains three absurd propositions that aren’t impossible but are highly improbable: 1) Siamese twins who don’t want to be reunited; 2) a woman fascinated by zebras who dreams of being raped by them; and 3) a crippled woman who gives birth to twins whose fathers are also twins. These are deliberately bizarre notions that we’ll be trying to render believable using all the artifices of cinema.”–Peter Greenaway on A Zed and Two Noughts

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, , Frances Barber, , Agnès Brulet

PLOT: The wives of two zoologist brothers are killed when a car driven by their friend Alba Bewick strikes a swan outside the zoo where they work. The grieving brothers question Alba, now missing a leg and bed-ridden, trying to find answers to the tragedy, while simultaneously documenting the decomposition of various animal corpses with time-lapse photography. Eventually both brothers fall for Alba, forming a strange menage a trois.

Still from A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Peter Greenaway’s second theatrical feature, after The Draughtsman’s Contract (1980’s The Falls was made for television). It was partially filmed at the Rotterdam Zoo.
  • Zed was the first (of an eventual eight) of Greenaway’s collaborations with cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Vierny’s other projects included Last Year at Marienbad, Belle de Jour, and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, making him arguably 366’s favorite cinematographer.
  • In keeping with the alphabetic sub-theme, Greenaway and Vierny worked out twenty-six different ways to light a set.
  • Painter Johannes Vermeer inspired the film’s look. The character named Van Hoyten is a reference to van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger.
  • On its original American release A Zed and Two Noughts was sometimes screened alongside “Street of Crocodiles.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Peter Greenaway films each scene like a painting: static, with characters arranged in precise visual relationships, moving very little. That technique creates a multitude of memorable tableaux: two children dragging a dog past the enormous blue ZOO sign at the Rotterdam Zoo, Alba with her head sticking through the car windshield while a swan’s hindquarters decorate the hood, the twins flanking the legless woman in bed. For something with a bit of motion to it, you could pick one of the slightly nauseating time-lapse experiments, such as the decaying  zebra corpse (which heaves as it is swollen with scurrying maggots, then deflates as they consume its guts). We decided on the image of the legless man standing erect on crutches, a character who suddenly shows up in the film for no other reason than to provide a masculine symmetry to maternal amputee Alba.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Accident on Swann’s way; sex for corpses; snail suicide sabotage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Greenaway’s highly structured, artificial movies often come off as strange simply because of the complicated intellectual conceits behind them; but this tale of amputees, carcasses, and cages played out in the stylized zoo of his mind might be his weirdest, right down to its decaying bones.


Brief clip (opening) from A Zed and Two Noughts

COMMENTS: A Zed and Two Noughts begins with death and climaxes Continue reading 340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

330. AFTER HOURS (1985)

“Different rules apply when it gets this late. You know what I mean? It’s like, after hours.”–After Hours

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , John Heard, Linda Fiorentino, Terri Garr, , Verna Bloom, , Tommy Chong

PLOT: Paul meets an attractive woman in a Manhattan coffee shop after he gets off work. Under the pretext of his buying a paperweight from her roommate, she gives him her number. He calls her, is invited over to her SoHo loft, loses his money on the cab ride over, and is plagued by a bizarre series of missteps and coincidences that result in a dead body and his pursuit by a lynch mob as he tries in vain to make his way back home.

Still from After Hours (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally titles Lies, the script for After Hours was Joseph Minion’s thesis project for Columbia Film School. His professor was . He got an “A.”
  • Minion lifted about a third of the film (much of Marcy’s character) from a radio monologue by Joe Frank, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against the producers.
  • Minion would go on to write the script for another Certified Weird pick: Vampire’s Kiss (1988).
  • Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, then-struggling actors who took up producing, optioned Minion’s screenplay. They pitched the project to Martin Scorsese, but when they did not hear back from him they began negotiations with , who had yet to make a feature film at the time. Months later, when Scorsese’s first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart, he expressed interest in the project. When Burton heard this news he gracefully withdrew, saying he did not want to stand in the way of Scorsese.
  • The ending of After Hours had not been decided on when shooting began. (One proposed, and unused, surrealistic ending had Paul climbing into Verna Bloom’s womb and being reborn uptown). The first cut used a downbeat attempt at a conclusion that bombed with test audiences. Scorsese then went back and re-shot the ending we see today. (Director suggested the resolution Scorsese finally used).
  • Scorsese won the “Best Director” award at the Cannes Film Festival for After Hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Kiki’s papier-mâché sculpture of a man staring up at the sky, mouth agape and gnarled fingers held before his face, like a flash-fried Pompeii victim preserved in ash. Paul thinks it looks like a three-dimensional version of “The Shriek.” The statue turns up unexpectedly later in the night, and an eerily and ironically similar piece plays a key role in the climax.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Burn victim?; “Surrender Dorothy”; mummified escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: No other black comedy has ever captured such a perfect mix of unease, absurdity, melancholy, and danger with the light, unforced touch that Scorsese does here. Man’s fate in an uncaring universe ruled by the iron fist of coincidence has never seemed so horrifyingly hilarious.


Original trailer for After Hours

COMMENTS: Years ago, I wrote an article for this site about Continue reading 330. AFTER HOURS (1985)

314. CRIME WAVE (1985)

AKA The Big Crimewave

“I’d always imagined that this would play at a midnight movie, kind of a cult movie and that this needed special handling. It needed to be directed at the same audiences that were going to see, for example, Lynch’s Eraserhead.”–John Paizs

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Paizs

FEATURING: Eva Kovacs, John Paizs, Neil Lawrie

PLOT: A young girl named Kim observes a moody boarder named Steven who has moved into the room above her parents’ garage as he attempts to write the world’s greatest “color crime movie.” As he despairs from writer’s block, she elicits the help of a Doctor C. Jolly from an ad in a trade magazine. However, the good doctor is not quite the savior Steven sets out to find.

Still from Crime Wave (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Initially, filming took place only on weekends, as John Paizs was working for the City of Winnipeg as a traffic clerk at the time. A glimpse of his day job can be seen in Crime Wave when Kim and Steve go out on an errand during the costume party.
  • Paizs’ style evolved from the director’s technical limitations, his earlier short film efforts being shot on old equipment without any microphones. He developed a taste for narration, as it allowed him to jump around scenes without confusing the audience. (Paizs’ early short films are currently unavailable).
  • The “above the garage” character came from a previous script concerning a young man pursuing an 18-year-old girl who regresses back to 13-year-old behavior. Unhappy with the story, Paizs transplanted the character to Crime Wave, making the female lead an actual 13-year-old and knocking out the romance angle.
  • Paizs based the staccato pacing of the “beginnings and endings” on trailers for 1950s crime movies.
  • Paizs signed a distribution deal with a company who promptly ignored the film. It received no theatrical release outside of Winnipeg, and years later was dumped on VHS (retitled The Big Crime Wave to avoid confusion with Sam Raimi‘s Crimewave) without much in the way of promotion.
  • Although Paizs’ post-Crime Wave career has been slight, some might have seen his work directing segments of “The Kids in the Hall” (such as the “Mr. Heavyfoot” character). After seeing Crime Wave, the troupe’s Bruce McCulloch recruited Paizs to film standalone short segments in a similarly whimsical-surreal style.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our narrator, Kim, often observes our hero, Steve, as he stands or sits brooding by the window above her parents’ garage. This recurring image telegraphs that something is about to change for the protagonist, while giving Crime Wave a silent movie feel. Indeed, Steve’s movements, tics, and expressions (or lack thereof) summon nothing less than a latter-day .

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Silent protagonist; streetlight head; “The Top!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Veering between self-aware amateurism and downright surreal amateurism, John Paizs’ feature debut keeps the viewer on his back foot in an unlikely, charming way. Partially dressed as a documentary, with narration provided by a young girl, Crime Wave shows the hell of writer’s block, interspersed with clips of the breathless beginnings and endings (never middles) of the writer’s output. Its hokey upbeat tone wryly slaps you in the face, while in the background strange and occasionally sinister asides undercut the atmosphere.


Clip from Crime Wave

COMMENTS: John Paizs’ Crime Wave defies most descriptions and Continue reading 314. CRIME WAVE (1985)

CAPSULE: CRIMEWAVE (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reed Birney, Sheree Wilson, , Brion James,

PLOT: Minutes from his execution, an innocent security-systems installer attempts to dissuade his guards from prematurely ending his life, telling a tale of mistaken identity, love, psychotic exterminators, and bad pick-up lines.

Still from Crimewave (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the prospect of an early cooperative effort between Sam Raimi and the made me hopeful, and while the creative does outweigh the crummy, Crimewave falls awkwardly on the “just a little too good” side of the weird movie equation. As it happens, it would have taken just a smidgen more amateurism (or a whole lot more inspiration) to have this be a Certified The-Man-Who-Wasn’t-There-meets-“Looney-Tunes” kind of a thing.

COMMENTSCrimewave was originally titled Relentless. On the DVD release it bears the title The X, Y, Z Murders. The distributors obviously weren’t sure how to handle it and, to an extent, neither am I. Made at the beginning of both Sam Raimi’s and the Coen brothers’ careers, you can see that they aren’t yet sure of themselves. All their trademarks are there—fast and novel pacing (Raimi), cleverly obtuse dialogue (Coens)—but they are still finding their feet artistically. Both the director and the screenwriters would, thankfully, move on to bigger and better, but with Crimewave we are left with an intermittently charming mess of a movie.

The action begins in Hudsucker Penitentiary, where a frantic Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) urgently rambles to his guards shortly before his scheduled execution at midnight. The tale he tells would sound familiar to anyone who has seen any of the Coen brothers’ more playful films. Victor claims he did not kill his two bosses (along with some bystanders), but that they were instead offed by the unhinged exterminators Faron Crush (Paul Smith) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James): two sleazebags I referred to as “Rat-Rat” and “Fat-Rat” in my notes. Mayhem ensues inside an apartment building that conveniently houses all the protagonists, with a couple of key scenes taking place in a nearby upscale restaurant where Victor awkwardly attempts to woo femme fatale Nancy (Sheree Wilson), a woman of the world who is in the clutches of the ultimate heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell). Hopefully, the car full of nuns will arrive in time to save our hero.

While the first half consists of oddball dialogue and strange zingers, the second half goes a bit off the rails with Warner Brothers-style violence. Crimewave‘s greatest fault is that it seems it knows what to do; it just doesn’t do it terribly well. Perhaps Sam Raimi felt too tethered being under the watchful eye of corporate Hollywood for the first time, and the combined effects of a constrained Raimi and novice Coens makes for something much more “odd” than “weird.” While the overall effect of the collaboration makes for a breathlessly tedious experience, Raimi’s frenetic pacing does occasionally complement the Coen brothers’ rudimentarily clever dialogue. While laboring through the second half (with the psychos, the car chase, and all that), it was as if I were with a boring guest at a party whom I just wanted to abandon, only to have him suddenly turn charming as I was about to leave.

All told, and despite the preceding paragraphs, I feel somewhat at a loss for words. It’s always great to see Bruce Campbell as a scumbag, and a lot of the other characters populating the small city block would evolve into the lovable idiots that would be the backbone of the Coen brothers’ classic comedies to come. However, the shining moments served more immediately as a reminder that the surrounding movie was a rushed, troubled, slapdash affair. Now that  both Raimi and the Coens have become great filmmakers, I would be interested in seeing them remake this (fairly justifiably) forgotten romp. As it stands now, though, while I cannot recommend it to anyone, I would recommend having had seen it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange but not funny spoof of hitmen that disappoints because the comedy is too simplistic and there’s no dramatic impact.”–Dennis Schwartz, Orzus’ World Movie Reviews

CAPSULE: PHENOMENA (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , , Daria Nicolidi

PLOT: A teenage girl with a psychic bond to insects teams up with a forensic entomologist to hunt down a serial killer.

Still from Phenomena (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Phenomena certainly has a wacky premise, and a chimp, to boot. That’s enough to get it onto our radar. Set those features aside, however, and it becomes a standard slasher/horror that borrows too much from the same director’s superior Suspiria to stand on its own.

COMMENTS: So an American brunette ingenue travels to a dramatically lit European all-girls boarding school where she becomes involved in a series of murders… no, it’s not Suspiria, and that’s not , it’s Jennifer Connely. But there are so stylistic many similarities to Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece in Phenomena that, if it wasn’t made by the same director, you’d probably accuse it of being a poorly-conceived ripoff.

As it is, Argento gets so wild here that he nearly descends into self-parody, although there’s little reason to suspect that Phenomena was intended to be watched with tongue in cheek. The movie is a mixture of good stuff culled from Argento’s toolbox—fantastical lighting (though more restrained than some of his early works), bold camera angles , suspenseful gore, a fairy tale atmosphere—mixed with some clumsy new variations on the formula. The overall mish-mash of good and bad, nice ideas and crazy ones, results in a horror film that’s not really successful on any level (except possibly camp), but is seldom boring. On the good side of the ledger, Argento still has a decadent way with atmosphere. Also, the all-the-stops-pulled finale, with multiple false endings and a genuine surprise finish, is legitimately thrilling. On the bad side, the effects used to create insect swarms (and individual insects) are terribly dated and cartoonish (the locusts of the previous decade’s Exorcist II are a huge success by comparison). The score is another mix of good and bad, with the effective part supplied by Argento’s usual collaborators, Goblin (billed here as “the Goblin”). Unfortunately, Argento also had the bright idea to try to appeal to 1980s youths by inserting rocking tunes from Motorhead, Iron Maiden and something called “Andy Sex Gang” into the movie; at least one shock scene is destroyed by the incongruous pounding metal track that makes it play like a music video excerpt instead of a suspenseful stalking. The crazy insectoid premise also falls into an ambiguous category: maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad, depending on your point of view and how seriously you’re trying to take Phenomena. But it definitely leads to some eyebrow-raising dialogue: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic,” deadpans Donald Pleasance’s wheelchair-bound entomologist.

Young Connely is not fantastic in the unconventional role—her line deliveries are so “blah” you may wonder if she was dubbed alongside the Italian cast—but her star potential is evident. If she’s not completely convincing, she is rosy-cheeked and stunning (in a chaste, high-school-crush kind of way). It’s no surprise she found stardom a year later in Labyrinth. Pleasance is, for reasons unknown, Scottish here; his performance is scaled back from his usual hamminess, and not the worse for the restraint. The real scene-stealer, however, is the chimpanzee Tanga, whose presence in the story is so inexplicably unnecessary that it becomes a sort of genius.

New Line cut 28 minutes from the film and released it in the U.S. as Creepers. The complete version is reviewed here. It makes for fine, not-too-serious Halloween viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Argento’s weird thriller was a huge box-office hit [in Europe]… Though Argento’s plot is often confused and grotesque, he has a remarkably energetic visual style (mobile camera, slow-motion, careful lighting, creative editing) that is never boring.”–TV Guide

LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Abbott, , David Gale, Robert Sampson

PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.Still from Re-Animator (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.

COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that ‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films[1] to come from the golden ’80s.

With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.

Stuart Gordon was a director of an avant-garde theater troupe, and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

  1. Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand. []

LIST CANDIDATE: TAMPOPO (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jûzô Itami

FEATURING: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, , Fukumi Kuroda

PLOT: A stranger rides into town and helps a struggling widow to master the art of noodle preparation, while peripheral characters enact food-related comic sketches.

Still from Tampopo (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Tampopo‘s parodic tale of noodle shop warfare is almost straightforward, if offbeat. Fortunately, there are enough surreal diversions—a fourth-wall breaking introduction where a gangster lectures the audience about eating too loudly during the movie and scenes exploring the erotic possibilities of live shrimp and egg yolks—to make this one worth a weird watch.

COMMENTS: Few movies can make you as hungry as Tampopo, the savory “noodle Western” (or “Eastern”) about an itinerant truck driver/gourmet who trains a mediocre cook to prepare the world’s greatest bowl of ramen. The main plot lightly parodies Westerns, with the stranger wandering into town to help (and woo) the local attractive widow, complete with showdowns with the local gang—although they battle not with guns, but with cutlery. In between advancing that storyline, the film takes time out for unrelated absurdist sketches revolving around food. (In the first of these, we visit a five star restaurant for a business meal where sycophantic salarymen order the same bland meal as the boss, while in another room a matronly etiquette maven tries in vain to teach young ladies to eat their spaghetti without slurping). The most of memorable of these excursions involves a mysterious yakuza in a white suit, who has kinky gourmet sex in a hotel room with his mistress. Come to think of it, the movie may make you as horny as it does hungry, although the sex is (almost) all done in good taste.

Not that it’s all fluffy, marshmallowy cinema. There are moments here that seem better fitted to a mondo film, such as the killing of a turtle (with one quick slice from a knife inserted under the shell), and the thematically meaningful yet taboo footage that plays while the credits roll. Many people find the egg yolk foreplay more yucky than erotic, while there’s another scene where the yakuza flirts with–and even French kisses—a dangerously underage oyster fisherwoman. These scenes are mildly shocking, although they’re neither mean-spirited nor deployed simply for the sake of shock. They add pungent, R-rated spice to a movie that might otherwise be too sweet and mild; with a few judicious cuts, it’s appropriate for a school-age crowd.

I first saw Tampopo (on VHS) when it came out thirty years ago, and although I had a generally good impression of it, I didn’t remember much beyond the basic premise. I’m surprised that I didn’t recall it as being especially strange or surreal. I found it a more interesting film this time around, which suggests that this may be a movie that takes some life seasoning to appreciate. It’s essentially a silly work, but as a paean to the pleasures of food and sex (and movies), it’s an easy one to champion.

The Criterion Collection released Tampopo on DVD in 2010, then finally upgraded it to Blu-ray this year (2017).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of those utterly original movies that seems to exist in no known category…. the movie is so consumed and detailed, so completely submerged in noodleology, it takes on a kind of weird logic of its own.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “upgrayedd,” who simply said “Tampopo is a weirdo.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Will Vinton

FEATURING: James Whitmore (voice)

PLOT: The acclaimed author, with three of his most famous characters in tow, recounts a few of his famous tales while racing in a fantastical airship to meet up with Halley’s Comet.

Still fromThe Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The unique properties of the Claymation stop-motion technique give Mark Twain a distinctive look and feel, and in key moments, the film manages to capture the subject’s complex inner voice better than almost any adaptation of his work. But the attempt to graft an exploration of the many facets of the personality of Samuel Clemens onto what is clearly meant to be a delightful children’s entertainment results in a metaphysical mishmash that’s more messy than it is mindbending. There’s not really anything like The Adventures of Mark Twain, which actually makes it harder to peg for the purposes of this project; the pendulum swings mightily between bafflement at what they were trying to do and amazement at what they did.

COMMENTS: Several years ago, a video started making the rounds across the interwebs. It bore the title, “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV,” and featured a strange headless creature with a mask instead of a face who makes a small village of tiny, happy, featureless people for the amusement of three children, and then proceeds to destroy said village in a flourish of calamity and misery.

Of course, the cartoon was not “banned from TV”, and even without attribution, a keen eye would recognize the unique plasticine style as that of animation pioneer Will Vinton. Best-known for his commercial work (most prominently the California Raisins), Vinton gained notoriety for an aggressively detailed approach to stop-motion animation. In contrast to, say, the Aardman house style, which is consistently smooth and a little stodgy, Vinton got deep into the craggy details, carving every deep wrinkle and wild strand of hair in thick, fingerprint-impressed clay. In addition to advertisements, Vinton’s work landed him sequences in TV shows and movies, music videos, and a series of holiday specials, to say nothing of an Oscar and three more nominations for his short film work. Mark Twain was his only feature-length project, and a curious one it turns out to be.

From the get-go, this is a perplexing tale being told. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—all Twain creations—spot the famous author planning to fly a giant dirigible to the stars in pursuit of Halley’s Comet. (As the film’s epigram reminds us, Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, contemporaneously to one of the comet’s periodic appearances, and the author frequently referenced his expectation that he would “go out” with the comet upon its return.) They have no notion of being characters from Twain’s mind, and he only obliquely references their roles as characters in his novels. Once they are ensconced as part of the crew, he introduces them to some of his other Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

CAPSULE: SCREAMPLAY (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Rufus B. Seder

FEATURING: Rufus B. Seder, , Katy Bolger

PLOT: Young Edgar Allen comes to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and settles in at a fleabag motel; he incorporates his revenge fantasies into his murder-mystery screenplay, but finds that the killings he writes about occur in real life.

Still from Screamplay (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an oddball tongue-in-cheek horror melodrama, but there’s nothing tremendously weird about it.

COMMENTS: In his introduction to the DVD edition of Screamplay, calls Rufus B. Seder the “ of Tromaville.” While that’s more than a bit of a stretch, it’s true that this classic horror homage, distributed (but not made) by Troma just before they stumbled onto the lucrative Toxic Avenger formula, is extremely highbrow by the company’s gore-comedy standards. Aside from the minuscule budget, it’s unlike anything else in their catalog. It’s far enough outside the mainstream that George “Sins of the Fleshapoids” Kuchar took on a rare acting role outside of his own productions (he’s wonderfully sleazy here as the heavy).

The story is simple: a series of murders among the dregs of Hollywood—would-be writers, actresses, agents, and producers—holed up in a low-rent motel are linked to a script being churned out by an eager but naive young screenwriter. The style, however, is more impressive. Rufus B. Seder’s influences are obvious: from the Expressionistic shadows of Nosferatu to the cheap B-movies of the 30s and 40s that vainly but valiantly tried to exploit that atmosphere (there’s even a sly nod to Plan 9 from Outer Space when a cop absentmindedly scratches his face with his revolver). Most of the time Screamplay looks like a 30s period piece you might catch on the Late Late Show, complete with a scratchy public domain quality transfer, but there are moments that would not be out of place in a Guy Maddin movie—or an early draft of Barton Fink as done by a poverty row studio. Seder’s performance seems to be at least partially modeled on Bill Woods’ wild-eyed mugging in Maniac—his innocent expression darkens and his eyes turn insane at the drop of a plot point. The ganja-inspired hallucination with a pair of murderous hands appearing in a cloud of pot-smoke also recalls ‘s maniacal epic.

The sets are very basic, but with overdramatic lighting, they achieve a melodramatic budget Expressionism. The blocky motel stairs leading to nowhere reach a minimalist sort of Surrealism, as does the police station set—basically just a raised podium reading “Hollywood Police Dept.,” flanked by Greek pillars with light bulbs on top. The story is set in no time in particular; the style recalls the 1930s, naturally, but occasional anachronisms like a roller-skating transvestite mugger add another layer of absurdity. Overall, it’s an impressive triumph of style over budget. Still, unless you’re obsessed with 20s and 30s horror, I wouldn’t recommend rushing out and trying to find Screamplay; but, if you do, I’d be willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.

Rufus B. Seder never made another movie after this one; he went into the production of holographic murals instead (examples of his work are included as a special feature on the DVD). It’s a shame, because Seder has clear talent and may have been able to make a truly great weird movie down the line had he stuck with it. He seems to have gotten movies out of his system with this project, but at least he found a niche for his creative impulses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…possibly the best Troma movie you’ve never heard of… with very few exceptions, [it] would feel right at home on a double bill with the classics from the twenties, thirties, and forties it so lovingly homages.”–James Lasome, Horrorfreak News (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ShaneWreck,” who characterized it as “[a] bizarre, expressionistic satire on Hollywood.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dan O’Bannon

FEATURING: Clu Gulager, Don Calfa, James Karen, Thom Mathews,

PLOT: Workers at a cadaver warehouse accidentally release an experimental army chemical that reanimates the dead and, together with a band of punks, find themselves fighting hundreds of brain-eating zombies.

Still from Return of the Living Dead (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s essential cult movie viewing, but it’s not inside the perimeter of the weird.

COMMENTS: In the mid-1980s horror movies realized that, in a post-Leatherface/Michael Meyers/Jason/Dawn of the Dead world, it was fast becoming impossible to shock jaded horror audiences with escalating gore. The response was to embrace, and exaggerate, the campy aspects of the genre. By 1984, wisecracking Freddy Krueger and his groaner puns supplanted the silent masked killers of just a few years earlier. Along with 1985’s bloody-but-wacky Re-Animator and the increasingly cartoonish horrors of , Return of the Living Dead was in the vanguard of the new tongue-in-cheek horror movement, helping to start a cycle that reached an artistic apex with 1987’s Evil Dead II (verifying the trend towards black comedy, II was itself an outrageously campy sequel/remake of the earnestly grim 1981 original).

While took horror’s basement budget subgenre into ridiculous realms of farce with The Toxic Avenger and its ilk, Return got the tone just right, adding reassuring flecks of “you shouldn’t take this seriously” to the script in a way that didn’t mar its legitimately scary and thrilling aspects. Return‘s jokes range from the blatant and silly (a zombie grabs a walkie-talkie from an abandoned ambulance and advises the concerned dispatcher to “send more paramedics”) to the subtle and silly (a pair of the survivalists are named “Burt” and “Ernie”). But the gags are just opportunities to catch your breath as the zombies close in, not the entire point of the show. Return captures the siege mentality of its inspiration, ‘s Night of the Living Dead. The victory of the ghouls is inevitable, because the dead outnumber the living. The victims, funeral industry workers and a gang of “punks” trapped in the melee while partying in the cemetery, can’t hope to defeat the undead. These corpses are particularly resilient—if you chop them up into tiny pieces and throw them in a garbage bag, the dismembered parts continue squirming. They are, in fact, nearly indestructible. The living can only hope to hold out long enough for the National Guard to arrive. Along the way come some imaginatively freakish sights, such as quivering half-dog zombies (the FX are not great by today’s standard, but it’s the concept that chills you) and the interrogation of a female corpse who’s missing the lower half of her body. Add in proto-Goth Linnea Quigley’s full-frontal nude dance among the tombstones (which is about as much Eros as a teenage boy in the 1980s could take with his Thanatos without exploding) and you have a trashy but timeless horror spectacle.

Scream Factory released a 2-Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” of Return in 2016, with four different commentary tracks (!), including contributions by director O’Bannon and a number of the cast members. The set also includes unused scenes taken from the work print and a definitive 2-hour documentary on the film (More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead) among its comprehensive encyclopedia of supplemental features.

Happy Halloween!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

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