Tag Archives: 1985

LIST CANDIDATE: A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

AKA ZOO

DIRECTED BY:

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

PLOT: After the deaths of their wives in a freak car crash, the brothers Oswald and Oliver, both zoologists, pursue different paths of obsession in an attempt to cope with their losses.

Still from A Zed & Two Nougts (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As an art-house film, A Zed & Two Noughts succeeds with its precise interiors, high-minded dialogue, and a cavalcade of mise en scène goodies. Smashed into its philosophizing and clever conversation are decomposing animals, two differently unhinged brothers, a surgeon with an unhealthy obsession with Vermeer, and a borderline-spastic score from long-time Greenaway collaborator, Michael Nyman.

COMMENTS: Taking the idea of in medias res to its logical conclusion, A Zed & Two Noughts (hereafter to be referred to as ZOO) starts with a flash of photography and a smash of a white swan onto a white car. Inside, two women perish—and a third survives, only to have had her leg crushed beyond repair. So far, so good—but not so “art house”, I hear you think. Yet this unlikely (and grisly) beginning somehow morphs into one of the most precisely arranged specimens of film I’ve had the pleasure to watch. After climaxing in the first few minutes, the remainder acts as something of an extended dénouement, culminating in a comparably macabre, though more peaceful, conclusion.

Stylistically, ZOO is like nothing more than a painting. Every shot is impeccably staged, suggesting that director Peter Greenaway could give even a lesson or two on orderliness in the frame. Scene after scene exhibits meticulous use of vertical and horizontal framing: doorways, windows, mirrors. Those who know a thing or two about Greenaway will be unsurprised: he trained as a painter before beginning his career as a film-maker. The precision of the film’s look is mirrored within it by the surgeon Van Meegeren, who obsesses over the Dutch painter Vermeer, going so far as to try and recreate the latter’s masterpieces Lady Seated at Virginal and The Music Lesson, using the fiery-haired Alba Bewick (the survivor of the opening car crash) as a template. During her first surgery we see him lightly caress her exposed body; after convincing her that her second leg needs removal, we see the surgeon’s assistant provide Alba with a new hair-do and earrings to make her look more like the young women in the Vermeer paintings.

Somehow I have as yet to mention the centerpiece of this refined ostentation, the Deuce brothers. Oliver and Oswald Deuce are, combined, the main character of ZOO. At the film’s beginning, they are obviously identifiable as separate people. Oswald is, so to speak, the left brain: he starts by trying to work out the facts, the tiniest specifics, leading up the deadly car crash that took his wife’s life. Oliver, on the other hand, is right-brained. He contemplates the greater role that the cosmos played in the tragedy as part of his mourning process, watching David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth” program. He feels he needs to start from scratch–the TV series spans some millions of years of natural history—in order to work his way to how events conspired to take his wife from him.

Events proceed in a sinister direction. The brothers’ work starts as time-lapse photographs of rotting fruit, then small fish, and finally works up to their penultimate project: the recording of a zebra’s decomposition. Thrown into this mess of decay, philosophy, paintings, and obtrusive music is an aspiring bestiality writer, a zoo warden who moonlights procuring exotic meats, and sundry “unexplained” escapes of animals. ZOO poses some tough questions, perhaps the most important of which is educed by the zoo’s chief administrator: “What valuable conclusion can be gained from all this rotting meat?”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Greenaway’s eccentric exploration of where all life’s absurd varieties must begin and end is, like a road accident, always fascinating, if not exactly pleasurable, to watch.”–Anton Bitel, Movie Gazette

CAPSULE: THE LAST DRAGON (1985)

AKA Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry, Christopher Murney

PLOTLeroy Green (nicknamed “Bruce Leroy”), a kung fu student in Harlem, searches for a master to achieve “the glow,” while defending a music video hostess from an evil businessman and his army of toughs.

Still from The Last Dragon (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Last Dragon isn’t truly weird, but it’s unusual, quirky, and culty enough to earn an honorable mention, and the recent Blu-ray release gives us an excuse to recommend it to those inclined towards 1980s camp.

COMMENTS: The Last Dragon, a mix of blaxploitation and kung fu tropes performed in the innocent style of The Karate Kid, blooms with camp pleasures. A scene early in the picture embodies the curious aesthetic, which reflects urban audiences’ fondness for East Asian martial arts movies (Shaw Brothers pics were staples of Times Square grindhouses, where cheap chopsocky imports played next to peep shows). In one such theater, an awed “Bruce Leroy” watches Enter the Dragon (eating his popcorn with chopsticks!) among a multiracial crowd who howl at the screen. The disreputable patrons include a transvestite, a Rastafarian indulging in his sacrament, and a couple of teenagers who disrespectfully set up a boombox in the aisle and start breakdancing (!) In bursts giant Sho’Nuff (“the Shogun of Harlem”) and his retinue to challenge the skilled but humble Leroy to dishonorable combat.

Sho’Nuff, who says things like “kiss my Converse, sucka!” and dresses like a samurai pimp in an outfit stitched together from leftovers from a Michael Jackson music video, is The Last Dragon‘s batty heart and soul. Hero Bruce Leroy, who walks through Harlem streets wearing a conical bamboo hat and is mocked by his streetwise companions for being a “jive coolie,” doesn’t make nearly the same impression. Leroy is played by Taimak, who was hired for his considerable martial arts prowess rather than his inconsiderable acting talent. His lack of emotion is put to good use, however; his flat line readings make him a true ghetto outsider, someone who has devoted his life to absorbing stoic Asian philosophy rather than learning how to smooth talk girls. Which is bad luck for him, as the girl in his life turns out to be none other than 80s bombshell Vanity. Vanity doesn’t get to do much other than be endangered and pretty, but she undeniably lights up the screen. Other characters include Leroy’s wisecracking younger brother (who also has a crush on Vanity) and a gangsterish video game magnate with a wannabe pop star girlfriend (she’s a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, with less talent than the two combined). You should also watch closely for bit parts by a young William H. Macy and Keisha Knight Pulliam (“The Cosby Show”‘s Rudy).

The Last Dragon was criticized for its predictable “damsel in distress” plot, but its crazy cartoonish characters and remarkable set pieces (including the aforementioned grindhouse showdown and a climactic battle where Sho’Nuff and Leroy glow while fighting) made it into a box office hit with younger audiences. Its legend only grew when it became a pay cable programming staple. Watch it for nostalgia, or to see what your parents thought was rad when they were teenagers. On a technical level its not great moviemaking, but as a guilty pleasure, it’s a blast.

The alternate title Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon naturally raises the question, who the hell is Berry Gordy? Turns out Berry was the founder of Motown records. He put up the dough for this one, and made sure that acts he controlled found their way onto the soundtrack (Debarge’s horrid “Rhythm of the Night,” featured prominently here, became a #3 Billboard charting hit). Why Gordy thought his name would bring kids into the theaters is a mystery. Vanity, thy name is Berry Gordy. (Well, in this case that’s confusing, but you get the idea).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly wigged-out kung-fu disco extravaganza…”–Time Out London

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Jüri Lumiste

PLOT: A teenage boy loses his innocence when he joins partisans fighting against the Nazis in 1943 Belarus.

Still from Come and See
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although in a number of ways Come and See is a conventional war movie, its unremitting bleakness, violent interruptions, and dream-like passages make it transcend the mold.

COMMENTS: The difficulty in writing about this movie is apparent from the title. The sights and sounds of Come and See carry the movie, and much of the narrative is embedded in the grimy and beautiful imagery. Although the string of events is fairly straightforward, our sense of time is thrown to the wind. Everything happens over the course of a few days, but the young protagonist, at the same time, ages decades from his experiences. I have not seen a  more harrowing war movie, nor would I really care to.

Come and See tells the story of a young man who is eager to join the local partisans who are charged with causing havoc with the occupying German forces. The opening shot is of the back of an older man’s head as he looks over a sandy field. “Hey, are you crazy?” he asks an unseen character, “What do you think you’re doing? Playing a game?” Soon after issuing some nebulous warnings, we find the man’s son, Florya, with a friend. They are looking for a rifle, as that is the requirement to join the partisans. They scour filled-in trenches, hoping to find a ticket into the group. An odd shot shows young Florya seemingly making love to the ground, his arms buried deep. He makes a climatic grunt and rises, holding in his hands a muck coated SVT-40 rifle. In this quasi-sexual act, he takes his first step in becoming a man.

Much to his mother’s distress, the partisans take him in. Thus begins a recurring series of close-up faces. Time and again, Klimov relies on the actors’ faces to convey the mood of the scene; sometimes full of wonder, sometimes eager, often tragic. He juxtaposes the mother’s anguished face at the news of her son’s enlistment with the happy grin of the boy who finally feels he has grown up. He meets with the partisans and seems to be accepted, even posing in a large group photo of the squad, taken by an enthusiastic Soviet sporting a jokey Hitler-mustache.

Shortly thereafter, when he is left behind by the militia, he cannot control his tears, until he finds Glasha, a girl around his age. Together they have an innocent encounter, set in a lush wet forest. This invocation of Eden is quickly cut off by a warplane. Bombs soon drop, along with paratroopers. Eden is destroyed—to be found again in a dreamlike sequence that starts off the next morning.

After that point, Come and See allows the viewer no hope of beauty. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

184. NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

“The script… for one thing, it would be written in twice translated English. So we would be sitting there looking at it saying ‘what the hell does this mean?’ for one thing. And then Godfrey would sort of explain the plot, in his kind of hyper, babbling way, and then we’d sort of make it up on the spot and try to figure out for him what he wanted. Then they’d splice it together and really the only time I’d see what he was going for was when I’d see the thing in the dubbing studio when we’d come back a month later when it was edited. But even then, as you know, they really really don’t… make… sense. There’s the merest suggestion of a hint of a plot somewhere in there. But no, it was very much making it up as we went along.”–Actor Ed Chworowsky on the experience of working on Godfrey Ho movies

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nancy Chan, Jack Lam, Bruce Baron,  Pierre Tremblay, Richard Harrison

PLOT: Rose infiltrates a diamond-smuggling ring intending to kill the three men who raped her. Rose’s ex-lover George, an ex-Interpol agent, leaves his new wife to help her attain her vengeance. Meanwhile, another Interpol agent, who is also a ninja, gradually kills off other ninjas who, though a convoluted scheme, are behind both the smuggling operation and the rape.

Still from Ninja Champion (1985)
BACKGROUND:

  • Ninja Champion was selected to go on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies in the 5th Readers Choice Poll.
  • The 1981 movie Enter the Ninja (with Sho Kosugi and Franco Nero) was a modest exploitation hit that introduced Western moviegoers to the concept of the stealthy Japanese assassin. In the early and mid 1980s there was a mini-craze for ninja movies, which producers Joseph Lai and Betty Chan and director Godfrey Ho attempted to cash in on by making dozens of movies with “Ninja” in the title. Ho’s methodology was to acquire older martial arts movies (some unfinished or unreleased) and shoot new footage involving ninjas, which would then be clumsily spliced into the older film to make a new movie. This filmmaking technique is known as “cut-and-paste,” and Lai’s Hong Kong-based IFD Films and Arts Limited released almost a hundred of them before the fad died out.
  • Godfrey Ho may have directed IFD movies under other pseudonyms, and sometimes cut-and-paste movies have been attributed to him although there’s no clear evidence Ho worked on them. The Internet Movie Database credits Ho with directing 119 movies. Of these, 50 incorporate the word “Ninja,” including such titles as Ninja the Violent Sorcerer, Ninja in the Killing Fields, Ninja Terminator, Clash of the Ninjas, Bionic Ninja, and Full Metal Ninja.
  • According to the website Neon Harbor, the base film to which Godfrey Ho added the ninja footage to create Ninja Champion was a Korean movie called Bam-eul Beosgineun Dogjangmi (translated as Poisonous Rose Stripping the Night).
  • Prolific, down-on-his-luck B-movie actor Richard Harrison contracted to make a few movies in Hong Kong for Ho; unbeknownst to him, the footage he shot was cut up and used in approximately twenty-one new pictures. He was sometimes re-dubbed so he could speak lines related to the new plot. In multiple movies (including this one) he plays an Interpol agent named Gordon who is seen delivering orders to field agents while speaking into a telephone shaped like popular comic strip cat Garfield.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Normally, you would say the image of two Caucasian ninjas engaged in a duel to the death while wearing headbands that read “ninja” would be hard to beat. In this movie, however, the unforgettable image has to be Nancy Chan’s topless scene, where the luminescence of her diamond-studded breasts makes the bottom half of the screen look like someone smeared Vaseline all over the lens.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s two weird movies in one, as a ridiculous Korean rape revenge martial arts movie gets a Godfrey Ho makeover with an overlaid Interpol/ninja plot that turns the original from a baffling trifle into a truly deranged and nearly incomprehensible example of exploitation cinema.


Clip from Ninja Champion (courtesy of Mill Creek Entertainment)

COMMENTS: Ninja Champion doesn’t necessarily make it onto the Continue reading 184. NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

READER RECOMMENDATION: PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)

Reader recommendation by “Brad”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mark Holton, Elizabeth Daily, Diane Salinger

PLOT: Pee-Wee Herman, the eccentric childlike persona of Paul Reubens, sest off on a strange and dreamy cross country search for his prized bicycle after local rich “kid” Francis (Holton) steals and the sells the bike.

BACKGROUND:

  • This was weird auteur Tim Burton’s first feature length film.
  • Burton was hired as director after Paul Reubens was impressed with his early short films “Frankenweenie” and “Vincent“.
  • Phil Hartman, the late great comedy performer/writer, contributed to the script, along with Reubens and screenwriter Michael Varhol.
  • Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was also Burton’s first collaboration with composer Danny Elfman, whom he’d work with frequently throughout his career.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a lot of visually weird eye candy here: for example, dead truck driver “Large Marge”‘s frighteningly cartoonish face as she describes her body being dragged out from her crashed truck in an iconic stop-motion scare.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: An eccentric lead, situated somewhere between child and grown man, who lives in a house of self-made gadgets and toys, cross-dressing with a convict, creepy clown nightmares, stop motion dinosaurs, and a meta-Hollywood ending: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure doesn’t let up on strange situations.

Pee Wee's Big AdventureCOMMENTS: I am sure this is usually passed off as some juvenile movie with quirky humor, but it truly is a great collaboration between two originally weird minds. This isn’t Tim Burtons’ film. This isn’t Paul Reuben’s film either. It’s a perfect merging of both. Coming off of his live performance show, the “Pee-Wee” character gained a cult following, allowing Reubens to get this film made. Lucky us. The film is quite warm, although there are plenty of bizarre and dark images throughout. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a labor of love. A definite “passion project.” We see some early Burton stop-motion experimentation, which he later used in many films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, etc. Of course this film also helped start Burton’s film career as a director, which led to some of America’s weirdest film projects. Reubens took the Pee-Wee character and created the equally bizarre children’s show “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere between a parody of kitsch and a celebration of it, and it has the bouncing-along inventiveness of a good cartoon… 26-year-old director Tim Burton shows his flair for the silly-surreal.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

165. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985)

“When we were approached to do this commentary and you were asking me if I’d seen Night Train to Terror I was thinking back. I’d seen it about ten years ago and I thought, ‘yeah, I remember the wraparound with the New Wave band and I remember the stop-motion insect that’s in the second part coming up,’ and that’s all I could remember. Everything else was it was a bit weird and strange and I didn’t find it all that entertaining. But, I have to say I’ve changed my opinion, I’m a lover of Night Train to Terror.”–horror writer Justin Kerswell, on the Night Train to Terror commentary track

DIRECTED BY: Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, John Carr, Phillip Marshank, Tom McGowan, Gregg C. Tallas

FEATURING: Ferdy Mayne (credited as “Himself”), Tony Giorgio (credited as “Lu Sifer”), Gabriel Whitehouse, , ,

PLOT: God and Satan are riding on a train at midnight. Looking out the window, they watch three stories, and debate the eternal fate of the protagonists. All the while, a teen pop/rock band is acting out a music video in a nearby compartment.

Still from Night Train to Terror (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • The first segment of this anthology film (“The Case of Harry Billings”) was an unfinished movie shot by John Carr. It was later released, without the director’s knowledge or input, as a feature titled Scream Your Head Off. In 1992 Carr shot additional footage and released his own completed version of the movie (now with Francine York as Marilyn Monroe!) titled Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars.
  • Night Train to Terror‘s second segment is edited down from the 1984 feature The Dark Side to Love [AKA Death Wish Club; AKA Gretta; AKA Carnival of Fools] (also directed by John Carr), which is available in its uncut form on the Vinegar Syndrome DVD as an extra.
  • The third tale is a compressed version of the 1980 horror Cataclysm (co-directed by Phillip Marshank, Tom McGowan, and Gregg C. Tallas).
  • According to Night Train producer/director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, none of the films used here had found distributors at that time, and some additional scenes were shot for each sequence using stand-ins. The stop motion animation sequences in the second and third segments were also added specifically for Night Train to Terror.
  • Phillip Yordan, who is credited for the screenplay to Johnny Guitar (1954), wrote Night Train (and also wrote each of the three movies edited into this anthology). Yordan was a three-time Academy Award nominee who received a 1954 Best Writing nod for Broken Lance. However, Yordan also worked as a front for blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era, so it is possible that he did not actually write all of the screenplays with which he is credited in the 1950s. His son Byron lip-syncs and breakdances in Night Train to Terror.
  • Some older reviews describe the first and third segments as switched from the order they appear on the DVD/Blu-ray; presumably this is the order the stories were shown on VHS.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie that’s caked in blood and gore, surprisingly enough the most memorable image is of the wholesome lip-syncing teenage band dressed like extras from Flashdance, hopping around, pretending to play instruments, and breakdancing in a train compartment that looks like a suburban living room, while the impassive conductor silently makes his rounds. Of course, in this case the indelible image is inextricably linked to the indelible sound, as the hormonal minstrels belt out their catchy-but-mocking hook: “Everybody’s got something to do—everybody but you.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Inspired by the box-office success of horror anthology movies like Creepshow (1982) and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Night Train to Terror tries to hop a ride on the omnibus gravy train. Rather than shoot new stories specifically for this movie, however, the producers decided to save time and money by cutting unreleased full-length features they already owned the rights to into twenty-five minute segments. Needless to say, the results of this hacksaw editing, which consistently sacrifices narrative for nudity and gore scenes, are incoherent. The expository sequences with a hammy God (“I shed my mercy on them, as I do the gentle rain”) and hammier Satan (“there is no evil so vile which man will plunge himself into”) on a cosmic train judging the characters adds an additional layer of bizarreness. But, it’s the upbeat teen New Wave band shooting a music video in the next train compartment that sends the movie off the tracks and plunging into a void of pure weirdness.


Blu-ray trailer for Night Train to Terror

COMMENTS: “I can laugh and cry at the same time,” explains God. He may have learned that trick by watching Night Train to Terror. If you mix Continue reading 165. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985)

CAPSULE: LUST IN THE DUST (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Lainie Kazan, Geoffrey Lewis,

PLOT: Gunfighters and dancehall girls converge on the dusty town of Chili Verde in search of buried treasure.

Still from Lust in the Dust (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not really weird; it’s only the presence of cult icon Divine, matched up with eccentric director Bartel, that makes the movie a curiosity.

COMMENTS: There are a lot of people who love Lust in the Dust, and a lot of people who hate it, and frankly, I can’t completely understand either camp. This light Western spoof looks good considering its low budget, features decent performances by an oddball cast, and breezes by at a brisk 84 minutes. The comedy is often labored, but everyone seems to be working hard to entertain you: the flick earns the same sort of goodwill you’d give a guy at a party who delivers an involved joke that he’s obviously worked hard at memorizing, even though the punchline isn’t that funny. It is easier to understand the position of those who hate it than those who champion it: their reaction probably comes more from disappointment than anything. The idea of Paul Bartel, fresh off the “bad taste” cult hit Eating Raoul, directing Divine in a Western with Lust in the title suggests a raunchy and outrageous movie that never materializes. This movie never rises above the level of “naughty,” and its comic sensibilities are more silly than transgressive. On the other hand, it does have a combination of quirk and competence that keeps it watchable, and one scene that’s nearly a knockout—when Lainie Kazan sings “Let Me Take You South of My Border” using a fresh corpse as a choreography aid. Kazan, as a conniving madame with a bustline and a sneer that both look made for Russ Meyer movies, steals the camp spotlight away from Divine, who is too tame in her role as a wandering lady with a penchant for accidentally crushing men with her thighs. Tab Hunter’s steely-eyed Man With No Name clone (the studly “Abel Wood”—groan) is forgettable, though not as forgettable as Cesar Romero’s kindly Mexican friar. Geoffrey Lewis, on the other hand (he’s one of those “I’m sure I know him—but from where?” actors) impresses as a ruthless but well-educated scripture quoting bandit leading a ridiculously multi-ethnic gang of desperadoes. All in all, Lust is OK, a predictable spoof with some chuckles—a résumé which makes it hard to understand why some people adore it. I suppose the Lust-lovers must all be Divine fans, although this performance (which would have been forgotten if a woman had been cast) is almost conventional by the outré crossdresser’s standards. You do get to see Divine’s rump, however, which I hope was not a clinching factor for anyone.

The title “Lust in the Dust” comes from an unflattering nickname given to David O. Selznick’s steamy 1946 oater Duel in the Sun, which this movie partly parodies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Bartel] seems convinced that simply combining Divine, Kazan and Hunter in the same room will create a fissionable comic mass. Before he shut the door, he should have also thrown in a screenplay.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Keith Stone. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)