David Blair’s contribution to the 1996 compilation feature film is pretty out there. The narrator reads a tale of telepathy, invasion, and survival while CGI figures spin across the screen.
DIRECTED BY: Anders Rønnow Klarlund
FEATURING: Voices of James McAvoy, Catherine McCormack, , Julian Glover
PLOT: Hal, Crown Prince of a kingdom of marionettes, disguises himself as a commoner to try to uncover his father’s murderer.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Strings is essentially a stock prince-grows-to-be-a-man-and-saves-the-kingdom high fantasy tale, but with a twist: everyone in the film is not only a marionette, they know they’re a marionette. The gimmick is used meaningfully, but given the standard-issue narrative, it’s not enough to movie this film from the “offbeat curiosity” into the “weird” column.
COMMENTS: Strings‘ basic plot, which involves an undercover prince, a kingdom in peril, intrigue and betrayal, prophecies, virtuous misunderstood rebels, appeals to the “power of love,” and a big battle at the end, is at the same time a bit confusing (with lots of characters, factions and subplots to keep track of) and overly familiar. That hardly matters, however, because the movie’s real pleasures come from admiring the meticulously constructed puppets as they dance across the boldly-lit diorama sets, and even more from the film’s creation of a complete marionette culture and mythology. The hand carved puppets have an Old World, doll-like charm, and although their faces are all frozen in neutral expressions, they exhibit an unexpected range of expressiveness just by raising or lowering their eyelids or tilting their heads that make them only slightly uncanny. The filmmakers make no attempt to hide the marionettes’ strings—even going so far as to title the movie after the darn things—and this is the most interesting and curious aspect of the production. A dozen or more strings rise up from each character’s body, disappearing into the heavens above. A breathtaking aerial view illustrates why airplane flight would be impossible in this alternate reality, as we see thousands of strings rising above the moonlit clouds stretching up to infinity, each set connected to an invisible creature walking about the world below. The film explores every aspect of their strung-up existence; even the city gates and prison cells operate according to weird marionette logic. I won’t spoil every single thread, but it was fascinating to see the mystical “birth of a marionette” scene, as the mother brings the carved wooden block of a baby to life by painfully summoning strings to descend from the heavens, then attaching them to the lifeless wooden doll. It’s tough to figure out who this movie is aimed at—it’s too dark and weird for the kiddie matinee crowd, and not quite dark and weird enough for us—but that very singularity of vision and lack of a clear marketing angle gives it cult credibility. In the end, despite the fact that we don’t make much of a connection with the archetypal heroes, despise the stock villains, or feel much investment in the restoration of the kingdom, Strings still manages to be a visually beautiful and imagination-stimulating movie. And it finishes with an unexpectedly touching ceremony that takes the marionettes’ central metaphor, alien as it is, and uses it to tug a little on our heartstrings as well as theirs.
Strings contains a couple of nods to Shakespeare: the main character who seeks to avenge his slain father, the king, while being opposed by a deceitful uncle, bears a passing resemblance to “Hamlet.” Even more obviously, the protagonist who grows from a foolish boy to a competent king is named Prince Hal, just like the star of the “Henry IV” and “Henry V” plays.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Essence of movie’s weirdness lies in its initial conceit… not quite strange enough to appeal to hardcore arthouse auds who savor the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and the like, but neither is it cutesy enough to cross over to the mainstream.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Teodor.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages
“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan
DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen
FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen
PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
- Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan. He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
- The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors. Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
- In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
- Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
- In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery. The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts. This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.
Scene from Häxan (1922)
COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)
DIRECTED BY: Henrik Rubin Genz
FEATURING: Jakob Cedergren, Kim Bodnia, Lene Maria Christiansen
PLOT: After a mysterious nervous breakdown, city cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is
re-assigned to a claustrophobically small, rural town as its only marshal. He quickly discovers the town’s frightful dynamic: its inhabitants all aware of resident bully Jørgen’s (Kim Bodnia) adulterous and abusive antics, but no one takes a stand against him.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though riddled with strange characters and unexpected darkness, for the most part Terribly Happy is played as a straight thriller with Coen brothers-style humor. There are a few weird and creepy moments to create tension, but nothing truly unreal.
COMMENTS: Poor Robert. As played in an understated performance by Jakob Cedergren, he’s a stand-up guy whose darker side is persistently tested as he meets with more and more obstacles. The more he pushes for change, the more the town’s internal politics and penchant for keeping secrets rise up against him. The old marshal spent most of his time drinking and allowed a lot of “accidents” and petty crimes to go by undocumented. After Jørgen’s desperate wife Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christiansen) comes to Robert with evidence of her husband’s physical abuse, he is determined to convict him, but is frequently hindered by both the town’s strict social structure and his own conflicting passions.
This movie feels as if it’s made by someone whose biggest cinematic influences are Blood Simple and Fargo, and that isn’t a bad thing. Most of Terribly Happy does seem like the Coen Brothers appropriated the premise of Hot Fuzz with Danish actors and more dramatic intent. A lot of the story plays as an extremely black comedy, but as the film progresses, the development and uncovering of Robert’s character become more focused, and it twists itself into a somewhat bleak but gripping drama.
The narrative is filled with a number of comedic moments placed up against truly unsettling ones, with certain simple visual cues to either send a shiver down the spine or elicit a knowing smile. Director Henrik Ruben Genz utilizes the expansive boggy fields surrounding the town to create a slightly desolate atmosphere, which results in some visually interesting scenes. The script, while well-written, is a little uneven and doesn’t do anything especially new, but the strengths of the cast and twisted tone make this film a cool experience.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It may not sound funny, but there’s a bleakly comic air about the story, and a bit of surrealism, suggesting the most caustic side of the Coen brothers.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)
NOTE: This review is also published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.