Tag Archives: Cult

CAPSULE: BIRDS OF NEPTUNE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Richter

FEATURING: Britt Harris, Molly Elizabeth Parker, Kurt Conroyd, Christian Blair

PLOT: Two sisters in Portland who have fallen into a pattern of stagnation and poor choices find their complacency upended when a manipulative man comes into their lives.

Still from Birds of Neptune (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the explanation for how the sisters got that way is a little on the peculiar side, the film itself plays it straight as an examination of two people who can’t move forward but refuse to look back until compelled to by an outside force.

COMMENTS: Fans of the satirical comedy show “Portlandia” have come to know the city as a place populated by extreme quirkiness and a measured indifference to social norms. Birds of Neptune, filmed in the city and featuring a local cast, plays it deadly serious, but it actually reinforces that same perception to outsiders about how life is lived in Stumptown.

Our leads absolutely play into the stereotype. Rachel is an experimental musician who is putting off both going to college and getting an abortion. (Kevin O’Connor and Erik Blood share credit for the score, which seems to include Rachel’s intriguing noodlings on the guitar). Big sister Mona, on the other hand, supports them both through her job as an exotic dancer with a preference for the avant-garde, including one routine in which she dresses like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Mona is harsh in assessing Rachel’s prospects, but also seems to be passive-aggressively standing in her way.

At the strip club Mona picks up Zach, a hipster-bearded psychology major with a penchant for nosing into the sisters’ business. He’s the one who discovers their dark secret—they were brought up in a Rajneesh-style cult laced with elements of Scientology, and still go through some of the motions of their unusual faith. This twist is probably the oddest element of the film, but there’s novelty in the fact that the film doesn’t condemn the girls for their mystical beliefs. In fact, their antagonist’s behavior manages to make a virtue of their ongoing commitment to a spiritual life that otherwise seems outwardly ridiculous and even dangerous.

We never learn precisely what Zach’s damage is, but he quickly makes it his mission to turn Mona against her sister, and then against her own past. This past includes an abandoned bathroom that is obviously the site of yet another family tragedy. Zach also seems determined to bed Rachel and destroy her budding friendship with a smitten 15-year old named Thor. (The film hangs a lampshade on that name at a critical moment in the film). In short, he’s a jerk. We get traces of this early on, as he snoops through the sisters’ house, but subtext becomes explicit as he purposely manipulates the two women, weakening the one while inadvertently spurring the other to take more definitive action.

In the final act, the film takes a very unexpected left turn into the realm of revenge thriller. It’s a curious choice from director Richter and co-screenwriter Flavia Rocha. If it’s intended to show how Rachel makes the crucial decision to move ahead with her life, that choice is already made. And if it’s meant to pull Mona out of her spiral into depression, it overlooks the fact that she is left alone at film’s end, now without direction herself. In any event, the characters are already developing steadily without the need for a sudden burst of violence to prod them along. It’s an illogical twist, which is weird, in a way.

Birds of Neptune is somewhat portentous, with lengthy shots of birds on branches and passing clouds serving as act breaks, and heavy dialogue scenes in which characters poke at each other in order to figure out each other’s “deal.” Ultimately, Birds of Neptune is a lot like its setting: laid-back, a little quirky, and getting where it wants to go at its own pace.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While Birds Of Neptune may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.”–Ben Umstead, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SAFE (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: , Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman

PLOT: A wealthy woman who finds herself suffering from nosebleeds, vomiting and other unexplained maladies is drawn into a New Age cult that promises to deliver her from her “environmental sickness.”

Still from Safe (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its protagonist’s non-specific malaise, Safe has an uneasy, hard-to-pin-down tone that’s subtly disquieting. Whatever is plaguing Carol, however, we aren’t comfortable with a final diagnosis of “weird.”

COMMENTS: Safe is a movie in two parts. In the first half, Carol, a bored housew—um, homemaker—sleepwalks through a wan, bourgeois existence. Sex with her affluent but uninspiring husband is unfulfilling, the furniture store inexplicably delivers the wrong couch, and post-aerobic conversations with her friends revolve largely around upcoming baby showers and fad fruit diets. Finally, the wrong kind of excitement enters her life: she begins suffering unexplained nosebleeds, vomiting, and wheezing panic attacks. The doctors are nonplussed by her vague symptoms, and allergy tests turn up negative (except for milk). Still, she’s hospitalized after suffering a seizure at a dry cleaners; she has something.

At this point, the film changes focus when Carol investigates a  health club flyer with the intriguing title, “are you allergic to the 20th century?” At first she attends lectures about “environmental sickness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity,” educates herself in the pseudo-scientific jargon about “body load” and “getting clear”; eventually, she declares herself a candidate for the expensive health retreat of Wrenwood, a “non-profit communal settlement dedicated to the healing individual.” Rather than getting better, however, Carol gets progressively sicklier the longer she stays within the carefully controlled atmosphere of the retreat: her body turns bony, her skin blotchy, she takes to lugging around an oxygen tank, and the slightest accidental sniff of fumes from a passing truck sends her into a wheezing spell. The psychobabble therapy—which insists that the patient’s illness is a result of negative emotions and of not loving themselves enough—keeps the residents in state of infantile dependency. Carol’s sickness actually gives her, for the first time in the movie, a sense of purpose and identity; her deterioration is, therefore, not surprising.

Haynes’ camera is deliberate; the film is shot mostly in clinical long shots, with very slow, ian pans. The soundtrack is low, rumbling synthetic drones, with vapid soft rock interludes. The feeling is of distant, gathering doom. The themes suggest layers of interpretation: the story could be a bourgeois satire, New Age satire, feminist allegory, AIDS allegory, or an existential nightmare manifesting itself as body horror. At Safe‘s heart are the subconscious concepts of “purity” and “contamination” (whether environmental, spiritual, or even demographic), and a warning about the danger of yearning for utopian homogeneity and withdrawal from the chaotic world. Ambiguous and creepy, Safe is a call to danger. In these gluten-wary times, Haynes’ message is still vital.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that [Haynes] will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.”–Todd McCarty, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who said “It features a great performance from Julianne Moore as a neurotic germophobe who becomes so paranoid in living in a modern industrialized society that she is shipped off to this naturalist colony where other neurotics wander around in these weird body suits that protect them from harmful pollutants in the air.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

“A cult of weird, horrible people who gather beautiful women only to deface them with a burning hand!”–original poster tagline for Manos, the Hands of Fate

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Harold P. Warren, John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree

PLOT: After making a wrong turn on a family vacation, Mike and Maggie and their daughter Debbie find themselves lost in the Texas desert. As night falls they discover a lodge and its mysterious caretaker Torgo, who reluctantly agrees to let the family stay the night. As the night wears on the Master and his wives awake, while Torgo develops an obsession with Maggie.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Hal Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, had a yen to become an actor, and met and befriended screenwriter Stirling Silliphant when the latter was in El Paso scouting locations for the television series “Route 66.” Warren made a bet with Silliphant that he could make his own horror movie. He scribbled out the initial outline to Manos on a napkin at a coffee shop.
  • Manos was filmed with a hand-wound 16mm camera that could only shoot 32 seconds of footage at a time. There was no live sound and all dialogue was later dubbed in by the principal male actors (Warren, Reynolds and Neyman) and one uncredited actress voicing all the female roles.
  • John Reynolds, who played Torgo, was a heavy drug user who was often high on LSD on set. He committed suicide months after shooting concluded, before Manos‘ debut.
  • Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, almost never screened on television, only gaining notoriety after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993. (Manos became one of the show’s most popular episodes).
  • For most of its history Manos was available only in scratchy second generation prints with visible defects; many fans believe that the murky visuals add to the film’s outsider appeal. In 2001, cameraman Benjamin Solovey found a pristine work print of the movie  and crowdfunded a digital restoration of the movie, which he released on Blu-ray (via Synapse films).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a brief moment when all of Manos‘ bizarre characters share the frame at the same time. Arms outstretched, as always, to display the scarlet fingers lining the inside of his coal-black cloak, the Master points to a shivering Torgo, while two of his nightgown-clad wives pirouette towards him and drag him onto the stone altar, his massive knees pointing towards the nighttime sky. In her review of the film’s opening night, the local El Paso film critic refers to this as the scene where Torgo is “massaged to death.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Torgo’s knees; wives’ nightgown brawl; who the heck is ‘Manos’?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing, strange dubbing, and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny west Texas wasteland that’s similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.


Clip from Manos: the Hands of Fate

COMMENTS: Manos: the Hands of Fate demonstrates an important Continue reading 223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

CAPSULE: THE MASTER (2012)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson

FEATURING: , Philip Seymour Hoffman

PLOT: Failing to fit into society after returning from World War II, a libidinous alcoholic sailor falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader (modeled on Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard).

Still from The Master (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only a single hallucination scene and some impressionistic storytelling that flirts with the oneiric gives us the slightest opening to even discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest bit of Oscar bait as a weird film. And yet, even though we’re as pickled in weirdness as The Master‘s sloshed sailor Freddie is in solvent-boosted booze, we’re conscious of how ridiculously strange this confounding film appears to average audiences. From geriatric walkouts to bloggers complaining the film is “weird for the sake of being weird” to the infallibly wrong Rex Reed declaring it “juvenile and superficial trash” in a class with Mulholland Drive and Being John Malkovich, The Master may be worthy of weirdophiles notice more because it’s annoying the right people than because of its inherent oddness.

COMMENTS: The Master isn’t an exposé of the origins of Scientology; that would be a mere barrel-fishing expedition. The tenets propounded by Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master (played with a carefully portioned-out charisma by Philip Seymour Hoffman) are an intellectual MacGuffin. Dramatically, the film centers around the bond between the uncomfortably avuncular Dodd and lost soul Freddie—the co-dependent relationship between Master and cultist, in which the need to be believed in is as desperate as the need to believe. Thematically, the movie is about man’s quixotic need to find meaning and purpose in existence, about a human emptiness that is filled by ritual and community, not rational deliberation. Anderson assumes the audience will understand The Cause’s teachings are hokum, and in case we don’t get it, a character explains, “You know he’s making it up as he goes along, right?” By taking the absurdity of the cult’s dogma as a given, Anderson shifts the emphasis from an examination of the truth or falsity of particular doctrines to the more provocative question of whether even blatantly ridiculous mumbo-jumbo can nonetheless be morally uplifting—and whether such salvation is worth the price. Joaquin Phoenix knows exactly what Anderson needs from the role, and his tormented, twitchy performance as a drunken lecher trapped in his own animalistic nature will be remembered come awards time. It’s a daring portrayal, because with his dimwitted stares, heed-banging tantrums and exaggerated agonies, Phoenix risks looking hammy and ridiculous. Freddie, who spikes his drinks with paint thinner because vodka has lost its kick, makes love to a sand castle in the shape of a woman, and masturbates into the ocean, is the most moving kind of character: one who’s repulsive, both physically and spiritually, but with whom we sympathize because his suffering and loneliness strikes a universal chord. He also stands as a challenge, or even a reproach, to Dodd’s faith—which this Master shares with conventional religions—that “man is not an animal.” Hoffman’s controlled performance, the super-ego to Phoenix’ id, is a delight in its own right, although his role mainly serves to highlight Freddie’s mania. Dodd is no simple charlatan, but a surprisingly congenial and even affectionate egotist who, as depicted here, sincerely believes his chicanery will better mankind. “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master,” he tells Freddie in the film’s key scene, “be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” That “any master” is a brilliant addendum, an unexpectedly selfless expression of love from Dodd (the equivalent of “even if you don’t get help from me, get help from someone”) and another indicator that the movie’s concerns go deeper than the peculiar quirks of the Cause. Ultimately, The Master‘s dogma is humanistic, tragic and romantic: the faith that a depraved freedom is preferable to a sick salvation.

The Master was shot in 65mm film, a lush but expensive format that today is typically only used for IMAX films. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of theaters around that are still have 70mm projectors capable of projecting the film in the way it was meant to be seen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strange and complicated story it has to tell exists beyond the reach of doubt or verification. The cumulative artifice on display is beautiful — camera movements that elicit an involuntary gasp, passages in Jonny Greenwood’s score that raise the hair on the back of your neck, feats of acting that defy comprehension — but all of it has been marshaled in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief. “–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Harold P. Warren

FEATURING: John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren

PLOT:  Lost in the desert, a vacationing family seeks lodging from Torgo, who takes care of the place while the Master is away.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With The Horror of Spider Island and The Beast of Yucca Flats already certified weird, it’s hard to argue that any movie could be ruled off the List solely because it was “too bad.”  But as painful as those movies can be to watch, the dreadfully dull and incompetent Manos is another kettle of stinky fish entirely.  Spider Island and Yucca Flats developed slight cult followings on their own bizarre merits, but for decades 1966’s Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, only gaining notice after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993.  Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a few weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny desert that’s somewhat similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.  The question is, is that weird undercurrent enough to overcome Manos‘ dead air?

COMMENTS:  Abraham pleaded with God to save the city of Sodom from eradication via brimstone, if he could find only a few good men inside the city limits; similarly, I won’t condemn Manos as a completely worthless endeavor if I can ferret out just a few good things about it.  A brief recital of Manos‘ cinematic sins, however, makes the judgment look dire for this microbudget brainchild of a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas. The issues begin with the film stock itself: Manos was shot with a hand-wound 16 mm camera that could only capture thirty seconds of footage at a time.  The camera was probably intended to be used by families making silent vacation films, and the results look exactly like home movies from the 1960s, complete with barely adequate, dull coloration and hazy definition.  Since the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)