Tag Archives: Crime

CAPSULE: FELIDAE (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Schaack

FEATURING: Voices of Ulrich Tukur, Mario Adorf, Wolfgang Hess, Helge Schneider, Mona Seefried, Klaus Maria Brandauer

PLOT: Francis, a housecat who has relocated to a new neighborhood with his human, stumbles into a mystery involving a strange cult, nefarious characters, and a feline serial killer. Still from Felidae (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a neo-noir/serial killer story where most, if not all, of the main characters are cats might qualify as “weird”—and, I admit, it’s a mighty thin line—the events and behavior involved aren’t surreal. They are just seen from a different perspective than we’re used to, to force us to consider our own behavior.

COMMENTS: “What I was watching wasn’t exactly a scene out of ‘The Aristocats’.”

Coming after feline members of a cult electrocute themselves in spiritual thrall, that line’s a definite understatement—and a cheekily self-aware one at that. Although the animation style is reminiscent of Don Bluth’s films, Felidae‘s approach to the material is more closely modeled on the adaptations of the Richard Adams novels Watership Down and The Plague Dogs. Perhaps not that surprising, since this story is also based on a literary allegory: in this instance, a book by Akif Pirinçci.

Felidae is a very good pastiche of film noir detective tropes: the dogged investigator, his reluctant friend/sidekick, moronic thugs, the ‘Good Girl’ who becomes a victim and the driving force for the investigator to pursue the case to the end, the ‘Bad Girl’ who appears to be a distraction but ends up being an integral piece of the puzzle, colorful characters adding flavor, and a nemesis who thoroughly pays off on the buildup. It also deals in the dark subject matter of noir: the violence and cruelty of life, religion and how it ends up being a tool of control, grisly farce, and sex… lots of sex. Placing those events in the world of cats, domesticated and feral, just strengthens the critique of human society, and adds another subject to the mixture: animal testing and its cruelty.

When it comes to quality animation intended for an adult audience, you have to look overseas and be prepared to do some digging.  Aside from Japanese anime, a piece in this genre won’t get much exposure to a North American audience except at a few film festivals, if it’s lucky. Felidae would’ve been a tough sell in America; in addition to a serial killer mystery with eugenics being the main key, there’s lots of violence, a sex scene, a couple of standout nightmare set pieces, and graphic depictions of animal experimentation—all with the look of a nice animated film with cats.

Felidae never got a release in North America. Although an English dub was prepared, it was only released in Australia, with the voice cast not credited (the IMDB list for the English voices is highly suspect). There was a R2 DVD release which had both the German and English language tracks, plus extras like a commentary and a “Behind the Scenes” featurette (in German only), but that is now OOP and going for high prices on the secondary market. YouTube searches turn up copies in German with English subs, or the English dubbed version. It would be great if Felidae gets rediscovered and issued on home video like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs were recently.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an imaginative, disturbing and ex-tremely adult thriller… Francis’ violent nightmares provide the most outrageously surreal images since the golden age of Bakshi.”–Stephen Puchalski, Shock Cinema (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Felidae was scored by Anne Dudley (Art of Noise) and featured a theme song co-written & sung by George O’ Dowd (AKA Boy George), which did get an OST release.

There are eight books in the Felidae series, though only three of the books have been translated to English. The author, Akif Pirinçci, has recently been mired in controversy, which led to both his German & American publishers cancelling his contracts and no longer selling his books. Still from Felidae (1994)

LES VAMPIRES (1915)

Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).

A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.

A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both and . The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.

Still from Les Vampires (1915)When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it  easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).

Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.

Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.

It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.

Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.

CAPSULE: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Peckinpah

FEATURING: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández

PLOT: Bennie enjoys a low-key existence as a pianist in Mexico City until he seeks a reward for proof of Alfredo Garcia’s death; Garcia’s head causes unimaginable trouble for Bennie and his friends as thugs converge on it to collect the bounty.

Still from Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The ubiquitous South-of-the-Border heat eventually saturates the addled brains of the characters and filmmakers, but Peckinpah’s gritty classic is very much “just” a film noir entry from some decades after their heyday. Still, casual conversations about culpability and forgiveness with a rotting head in a sack isn’t something you see every day.

COMMENTS: Sam Peckinpah is regarded by many as the ultimate “bad boy” director. Held in awe by people ranging from comedian Denis Leary, film critic Roger Ebert, and even neophyte director Ryan Prows, Peckinpah’s films have a merited reputation for gritty intensity. While he won’t become a member of the esteemed 366 canon of directors, Peckinpah should be regarded as a dear friend. His scorched, nihilistic, and impressively grisly Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia comes up trumps in its genre (Post-Western-Neo-Noir?), but also veers enough into pathos-filled idiosyncrasy to warrant a good look.

The succinct plot provided above doesn’t quite do justice to the proceedings. Things start brutally enough with a dressing down (literally?) of a defiant daughter by her tyrannical father—a powerful Mexican plutocrat, complete with posse and compound. The daughter has become pregnant from relations with—you guessed it—Alfredo Garcia. His dalliance was his death warrant, and a swarm of hit-men (all eager to claim the one-million-dollars on offer) surge out of the compound to hunt him down. Two such assassins encounter our friendly neighborhood barman, Bennie (Warren Oates), and this initially bloodless series of events quickly starts to steadily ratchet up the death count as Bennie and his girl (Isela Vega) look for Garcia. The third act is, well, a series of violent punctuations punctuated themselves by little bits of philosophical musing.

As Bennie’s journey inexorably leads him to a head in a bag, so to does the flow of this review. Between a couple of dramatic scenes (a truly tragic death and a comparably tragic mass murder) we enjoy a conversation that, had it continued, might have let Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia butt its way onto the list. I don’t know if it was the film stock used or the mediocrity of the Blu-Ray transfer, but the film’s atmosphere—which was already teetering on the verge of collapse from sun stroke—becomes truly hellish. Flies fill Bennie’s beat-up Impala as a stench permeates the vehicle (almost wafting to the viewer), and through this fog of death and heat, Bennie has exchanges with the million-dollar head. Bennie chastises Alfredo, shouts at Alfredo, and bargains with Alfredo. At a roadside cantina, we wonder if the jig is up when a small boy cleaning his filthy car windows inquires about it. Bennie, cool despite it all, explains, “Cat. Dead cat. Used to belong to a friend of mine.” Ultimately, Bennie even forgives Alfredo.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is so infused with violence that most contemporary genre pictures pale in comparison. Peckinpah captures almost every slaughter with the greatest impact possible. We don’t ever see the titular character (not alive, at any rate), and his head is merely a plot device which forces us to bear witness to the lives of men and women at the bottom of the food chain and at the end of their tether. Pathos borders on bathos as Peckinpah turns the screws on the initially carefree and affable Bennie. Even in the company of its peers, it is surprising to see a movie so relentlessly cynical, particularly when this cynicism is only ever interrupted by one man’s conversation with a decomposing head.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie is some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It’s probably not a movie that most people would like, but violence, with Peckinpah, sometimes becomes a psychic ballet.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: LOWLIFE (2017)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Prows

FEATURING: Nicki Micheaux, Mark Burnham, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Santana Dempsey, Shaye Ogbonna, Jon Oswald

Lowlife (2017) PosterPLOT: Unhinged restaurant owner Teddy Haynes runs a people-processing facility below his fish taco building, harvesting organs of undocumented immigrants and pimping out underage women. His enforcer, the luchador El Monstruo, is worried about the well-being of his pregnant wife Kaylee, while Kaylee’s biological mother suspects Teddy’s offer of a kidney for her ailing husband is too good to be true. Joining the madness is ex-con Randy, and soon this gang of oppressed underlings join forces to take Teddy to task.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As you can read above, the plot is a mouthful—and that’s only covering its barest bones, so as to maintain coherency. Pitch-perfect editing leaves the viewer with countless narrative teases and denials. While we’re left wondering what’s going on plot-wise, Ryan Prows bombards us with Jacobean violence interspersed with hilarious dialogue and sight gags. Topping it all off, when El Monstruo’s rage becomes untenable, the sound crashes, and someone’s probably dead.

COMMENTS: Few of the movies at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival were primed with so much hype from the festival organizers. Out of the blue, they received Lowlife through their general Inbox, unsolicited and unexpected. From nothing, Ryan Prows’ debut feature became the must-see event of Fantasia. A heavy burden, for sure—with three weeks of movies to compete against, including the new space epic, Marc Meyers’ much lauded Dahmer biopic, and (to a lesser extent), the latest Jojo movie with its ravenous fans—but Lowlife comes up trumps.  Nothing is wasted in this movie; and more importantly, it would be a welcome addition to the 366 canon.

The story is told through the perspectives of each main character: the simple but passionate luchador el Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate); a bad-guy straight out of Dante’s “Vice City Infernus,” Teddy (Mark Burnham);  a hard-working, junk-hoarding motel owner, Crystal (Nicki Michaux); and a pair of friends—African American accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and his long-time pal, now with Swastika tattoo, Randy (Jon Oswald). Each of their Venn-diagram stories interact on the others’ heels, slowly moving into place, synchronizing as all the characters come together for the final action. This neat narrative stunt was pulled off by deft editing, and, to paraphrase the director, “[writing the $#!&] out of that story.”

During the disorienting narrative flow are the touches that further make Lowlife the visceral-but-surreal experience it is. When Crystal’s husband finds out the source of the kidneys he’ll be receiving, a combination of a flippant note, a heart-felt phone message, and visual exclamation point bring violence, tragedy, and humor into one tight scene, pulling the viewer’s emotions in all three directions. Then there’s the scene where Teddy, squaring off against some troublesome yahoos, seems licked when his six-shooter runs out of bullets. Heading back to his Italian-opera blaring sports car, he pops his pregnant hostage in the trunk, grabbing in her place the AR-15 that happens to be lying around in the back seat. And that’s not even mentioning the tragicomedy of el Monstruo and the comic tragedy of Hip-Hop Wigger Randy: two men marked for life from the neck up.

Lowlife plays like elements of movies many of us have seen before, but is a force unto itself. Imagine Inherent Vice on cocaine instead of marijuana; or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as Grand Guignol; or maybe the best comparison I can think of, Pulp Fiction with cajones. Like a spastic playing with a rubber-band, Lowlife plays with the viewer, pulling first toward shock with heartless violence, then laughter with gut-busting non sequitur (yup), then sadness with beastly tragedy. This gang of monsters, fiends, thugs, and criminals have a wacky adventure in a land of poverty, cruelty, and hilarity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ looms the largest over ‘Lowlife,’ with its flair for unexpected, quick violence, and interweaving vignettes. But there is also a touch of David Lynch in the film’s unflinching exposure of America’s seedy underbelly.”–Jamie Righetti, Indiewire (Fantasia screening)

CAPSULE: TAKASHI MIIKE’S “DEAD OR ALIVE” SERIES (1999, 2000, 2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Riki Takeuchi,

PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Still from Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.

The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.

Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.

“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse . The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (DVD series release)

CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Martin Carroll

FEATURING: , Brad Dourif, Michael Boston,

PLOT: A small-town band of desert criminals steals a car with a baby in the backseat; the evil patriarch orders him to be raised as one of them.

Still from Sonny Boy (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It misses by a hair. Make no mistake, Sonny Boy is a unique, and weird, cult classic horror/comedy/genre-defying oddball. It is beautifully shot, marvelously acted, and defiantly marches to the beat of its own drummer. But its story is straightforward and linear, and it stays grounded mostly in reality. As hillbilly exploitation, it lies on a spectrum between Deliverance and Gummo. But at least 50% of its weirdness comes from David-Carradine-In-Drag, and we’ve seen much worse in any film.

COMMENTS: The opening prepares you in no way for what you’re about to see. David Carradine sings a folksy country number (written by him—we later see him perform it on the piano) that sounds like a homage to John Denver. This plays over helicopter shots of placid New Mexico heartland. Soon we’ll be seeing David in the cast, and are we in for a surprise. A minute after the credits, the infant child of two parents shot over a car-jacking gone wrong narrates, with a clown doll leering at us as the thief speeds away in their 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III, and we find ourselves in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas territory. Welcome to Sonny Boy, enjoy your ride.

The carjacked baby ends up the adoptee of “Slue,” (Paul L. Smith,  who played “Bluto” in ‘s Popeye), the small town crime baron of Harmony, New Mexico, and his wife, David-Carradine-In-Drag (“Pearl”). Carradine dominates every scene he’s in–because that’s the Kill Bill guy in a dress, acting downright maternal. He gets more hilarious as the film wears on, turning gray and grandmotherly as Sonny’s life story unfolds. Slue’s flunkie apologizes—“I didn’t know nuthin’ ’bout no baby”—but Sonny’s fate is sealed when David-Carradine-In-Drag cradles him to his breast (?) and declares “This is MY baby!” Slue is a destructive man who blows up cars with a canon for fun, and his paternal instincts turn out to be equally warped. Slue and his merry band of henchmen live a post-apocalyptic existence, with TV sets stacked like Legos and junk cars dotting the landscape like grazing buffalo, amongst herds of roaming hogs.

We’re given glimpses of Sonny’s childhood in installments, including a birthday party with, yes, the infamous tongue-cutting scene. The festive balloons and animal masks lend the scene the eeriness of a cult ritual, which is about the right mindset for fans of this movie at this point. Sonny is raised as a psychopath-in-training, alternately dragged behind cars and staked out in a ring of fire. Eventually he is Continue reading CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

CAPSULE: DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill

PLOT: Three women bearing the same name resolve their issues with their spouses by drowning them, enlisting the local coroner to aid in covering up their murderous spree. All the while, the film itself counts inexorably from 1 to 100, which marks the movie’s end.

Still from Drowning by Numbers (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When you put Peter Greenaway behind the camera, there’s going to be some weirdness as a matter of course. But while the movie has striking tableaus composed with his painterly eye, most of the oddity comes from the numerical gambit, with a touch of cavalier attitude toward the macabre.

COMMENTS: There’s no rule that says cinematic murder must be violent, or even serious. Consider the corpse lying in the bucolic countryside of The Trouble with Harry or the repeated deaths of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. So Drowning by Numbers is following in a grand comedic tradition, right down to the titular crime occurring, like the best of jokes, in threes. However, if the murders themselves are relatively light on shock value, they are also surprisingly light on motive. The first husband is ostensibly murdered for unfaithfulness, although there’s little anger in the crime. The second is dispatched merely for being grossly inattentive. By the time we get to the third, there seems to be no real reason for it at all, other than the fact that, hey, we’ve got another husband to kill. The plot is as inured to the horrors of homicide as its murderers.

Drowning by Numbers is that rare film where it’s a tossup as to whether the tone is misogynist or misandrist. True, the men are largely unsympathetic, and that extends to coroner Madgett, who ultimately proves too aggressive in pursuit of romantic recompense for his role as accomplice. But it’s not as though women come off especially well, either. Even with three female leads, the movie doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, since their conversations are largely about the men they love/kill. The three Cissies (who might be three generations, and who, curiously, share a name with a B-movie actress) are shockingly cold; they are not righteous, defensive, or even defiant about their acts. Murder seems to be a decision on par with re-arranging the furniture. Maybe this detachment is not entirely their fault, though, as the entire community seems to be largely apathetic about a sudden spike in the mortality rate. In addition to all this drowning, the film features a self-mutilation that is repeatedly dismissed as trifling, an irresponsible vehicular manslaughter that seemingly affects only one character, and a suicide that goes almost completely unobserved. Perhaps the film’s tone is really just nihilist.

Why so carefree about human life? Probably because of all the games. Characters are constantly playing complex games for which Madgett’s son/apprentice (blood relationships are poorly defined in this movie) must describe their arcane rules. They’re something to do in between all the murders. So it stands to reason that Greenaway himself needs a game to distract himself (and us) from the proceedings…which brings us to the numbers. An alternative way to watch the movie is to spend your time looking for the numbers as they advance, like a kind of scavenger hunt. Sometimes they are subtle, hidden on a far wall or tossed off in dialogue; other times they are absurdly obvious, like on a sign awkwardly nailed to a tree or, most amusingly, as identification for a pair of foot racers who stumble upon one of the drownings and proceed to stalk the merry murderesses for the remainder of the film, still attired in their running gear. But the numbers don’t really tie in to the story in any way, aside from a prologue that promises an ending at 100. It’s just a gimmick. A bold one editorially, showing how meticulously Greenaway has laid out his shooting story, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s essential in the same way a book is on a sea cruise: just another way to pass the time.

Drowning by Numbers is a movie about games, motivated by games, and comprised of games. So your tolerance for the film probably depends on how eager you are to play.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You either love [Greenaway]… or you hate him. In either case, you do not understand him. The characters in ‘Drowning by Numbers’ are all completely credible people, who speak in ordinary English and inhabit a real landscape (except for the numbers), and behave in ways that would not shock the reader of a mystery novel. It is just the arbitrary pattern that seems strange, as one husband after another goes to his watery doom.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)