Tag Archives: Horror

1974 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA, IT’S ALIVE, AND LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES

1974 brought a cult movie smorgasbord, beginning with Andy Warhol’s Dracula (AKA Blood for Dracula, directed by ), which is better known than the previous year’s Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. It again stars (as the bloodsucker) and (as the servant Mario), along with famed Italian director Vitorrio De Sica as a patriarch with four daughters who need marrying off. Kier’s count is sick, depressed, and bored to tears. He needs virgin blood, but post-sexual revolution, that’s not easy to come by. Three of the four candidates turn out to be sloppy seconds, making the Count even sicker. When he finally does find daughter four to be a virgin, the meddlesome Mario saves her in the predictable way, with Dracula diving to the floor to lap up popped cherry sauce.

Still from Blood for Dracula (1974)Knowingly misogynistic, with a splendid score (Claudio Gizzi), an over-the-top finale that puts some of the sillier Hammer vampire dispatches to shame, and a cameo, Blood for Dracula is far from perfect, but endures as a cult oddity.

‘s Phantom of the Paradise is probably the best film based on the Gaston Leroux novel. It’s greatness lies in its refusal to put the original narrative on a pedestal, which, despite what a certain hack composer named Webber claims, is not that good anyway. It quickly secured its cult standing, but is often considered to be under the shadow of 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both are delightful, but if it’s an either/or situation, go with De Palma. His is the better film.

The Night Porter (directed by Liliana Cavani ) was to 1974 what Fifty Shades Of Grey was to 2015, the difference being the S&M relationship here is between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the Jewess he tortured in the concentration camp (). It’s arthouse reputation secured a strong following for years, and it was eventually released on home video via the Criterion Collection. It wasn’t unanimously loved; Roger Ebert was among its critics, in an almost infamous review.

Rampling co-starred  in her second 1974 cult movie with ‘s Zardoz, appearing alongside in a ponytail and diaper. It’s yet another 1974 entry that made our official weird movie list.

Hyped as a soft core porn parody of “Flash Gordon,” Flesh Gordon (co-directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm) was another immediate cult hit, although it’s largely forgotten today. More sophomoric parody than porn, it has period charm as a fan film with Continue reading 1974 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA, IT’S ALIVE, AND LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES

CAPSULE: PARENTS (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bob Balaban

FEATURING: , Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky

PLOT: Moving to a new town and going to a new school can be tough on a young boy, but Michael’s problems may be even worse—his parents might be cannibals.

Still from Parents (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTParents is a wonderful little black comedy directed by Bob Balaban, better known for his many appearances in off-beat comedies over the past few decades (including Moonrise KingdomGosford Park, and as a recurring character on “Seinfeld”). With three-million bucks and an eccentric performance from Randy Quaid, Balaban put together a fun little romp of the macabre combining “nifty-’50s” schmaltz with nightmarish overtones. If really pressed, I’d say it could make the “Certified Weird” cut; but frankly, we’re running out of space.

COMMENTS: Some years bring us big movies—-movies a generation remembers as iconic. The year 1988 brought us classics like Die HardComing to AmericaRain Man, and Big. It also brought us Parents—a movie that, like “the Little Engine that Could”, eschews fame but provides a solid performance. Tucked away among dozens of big-name pictures that year, Parents succeeds at everything it sets out to: it is dark, it is funny, and it is a helluva sinister showcase for Randy Quaid. It fared poorly in theaters—not surprising considering the genre (horror comedy), competition (already mentioned), and stars (great actors, but not Hollywood gods). But who cares? Though not quite a qualifier for Certified Weird status, Parents is exactly the kind of movie for our readers.

A jaunty mamba plays through the credits: a pleasant montage of 1950’s hyper-Lynchian suburbia: helicopter shots of indentikit houses; a beautiful mint-green Oldsmobile filled with wholesome groceries and a nuclear family; a friendly crossing guard. But alas, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lacks his parents’ enthusiasm about moving from Massachusetts. Michael sullenly mopes about the house in near silence, refusing to eat any of the left-overs brought from their old home. His mother Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) is a chirpy kind of perfect housewife, maintaining a spotless home while cooking elaborate, meaty meals. Michael’s father Nick is enthusiastic about his job (developing aerosol defoliants) and is keen to fit in with the new neighbors. What’s eating at the boy, then?

The greatest charm of Parents is its narrative ambiguity. Balaban crafts a tone that matches its hyper-kitschy nostalgia with equal parts menace. Colors pop off the screen while a lack of immediate context and chilling musical cues do a lot of heavy lifting. Nick Laemle is prone to telling didactic “stories” to his son, typically to a discordant, darkened score. And the big question—are the parents cannibals?—is difficult to answer. Early on we see Michael witness his parents being romantic, with mom’s lipstick smeared on her and her husband. What develops is a conflation of his parents’ physicality with his paranoia about the nightly meat dishes. Since everything is through the eyes of the morosely imaginative Michael, the fiery ending could be construed as tragicomic, or just straight up tragic.

Unexpectedly, Parents excels in its characterization. Lily’s emotional distress about her boy is palpable; Nick’s inability to bond with his son is moving. And, time and again, the big question of the film pops up. Others may disagree, but I’m of the feeling that all the “trouble” in the story is in the mind of young Michael. Though he’s the central observer, scenes exist in the film that he cannot possibly have witnessed. But I digress. At 81 minutes, Parents is commendably brief. Balaban created a masterpiece in miniature in 1988, one that has aged substantially better than many of its more famous contemporaries.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a deeply ambiguous fusion of the family’s reality and Michael’s psychotic fantasy, where cracks in the surface sheen of 1950s home life expose something deeply poisonous and combustible beneath. Initially signalled by their monochrome presentation, soon Michael’s deranged visions start coming in full colour (and daylight), with only the canted angles and deliriously spinning mobility of Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon’s camerawork – and the odd animated salami – to mark how off-kilter a view of bourgeois Americana this is.”–Anton Bitel, FilmLand Empire

 

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973) & FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987)

‘ Tales That Witness Madness, made for World Film Services in 1973, is clearly patterned after the Amicus horror anthologies. Of course, what better way to emulate the competition than to acquire the man who directed nearly half of the Amicus franchise, along with several of that studio’s top draw actors?

The setup is simple and familiar enough: is the resident psychiatrist of an asylum, giving friend Jack Hawkins (in his final film) a tour of the grounds. Along the way, he tells the stories of four inmates.

In “Mr. Tiger,” Russell Lewis’ imaginary feline pet beast takes a sour view of his master’s verbally abusive parents. Just how imaginary the tiger is questioned after some clawing on the door and blood splattering on Oedipal walls.

A time traveling bicycle is at the malevolent heart of “Penny Farthing.” It stars Peter McEnery as an antique shop owner and Suzy Kendall as his wife. Soon, they discover the bike is literally antique and … we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.

Still from "Mel" from Tales That Witness Madness (1973)“Mel” stretches credibility when Michael Jayston is more interested in an oddly shaped tree than he is in oversexed wife Joan Collins in something pink from Frederick’s of Hollywood. It’s the most remembered segment for a reason—it’s a camp hoot, with Collins channeling her inner jealous diva. The tree tries to upstage the human competition, which is not an easy task against Joan in a flimsy nightie, wielding an axe.

Rita Hayworth was originally cast in the final segment, “Luau,” but bowed out, citing health reasons. replaces her and gives a pallid performance as another jealous diva who happens to be a cannibalistic mother. Although not as well known or as assured as the best Amicus entries,Tales is still an enjoyable example of the genre that confirms Francis as an underrated director.

Most horror anthologies succumb to moralizing. One that avoids that route altogether and revels in its gore and perversity is the underrated From a Whisper to a Scream (1987), Jeff Burr’s first solo feature film. It’s an impressive debut that unfortunately did not lead to bigger and better projects for the director. co-stars with Martine Beswicke, , Rosalind Cash, Terry Kiser, Clu Gulager and the always underrated misfit . Price gives a solid performance in the wraparound as a Tennessee librarian whose knowledge of local history is put to use as he relays four tales to reporter Tyrell, who just came back from the execution of the librarian’s serial killer niece. The cast is uniformly good, especially Gulager who gives a hell of a performance in the first segment as an aging, pathetic grocery clerk whose relationship with his ailing sister (Gulager’s real-life wife Miriam Byrd-Nethery) is clearly incestuous. However, an unrequited love for his boss (Megan McFarland) quickly turns things uncomfortably south, with necrophilia thrown into the sororicidal brew.

White trash thug Terry Kiser is nursed back from the dead by kindly bayou voodoo practitioner Harry Caesar. When Kiser has the chutzpah to bite the hand that feeds him, a horrific fate awaits in this unfathomably grim narrative of dread.

Didi Lanier falls in love with carnival glass eater Ron Brooks, who is trepidatious about running away with her, fearing retaliation from the show’s owner/snakewoman (a delirious Rosalind Cash in her final film appearance). The intestinal finale of imploding razor blades and paper clips is gruesome enough to warrant a shower after. This is also the final film for dwarf Angelo Rossitto, who had most famously starred in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

Cameron Mitchell, once a reliable character actor, emerged from a decade-long slump of in this unsettling Gothic Civil War tale that goes to the “you’re not going there” place. Knowing the war is over, Mitchell and his rogue Union squad take the attitude that it isn’t, but fatefully encounter a band of confederate children. Damien, the Children of the Corn and the killer tykes from that Village of the Damned have nothing on these southern juveniles who reinvent pin-the-tail-on-the donkey and don’t bat an eye at removing one adult limb at a time. Hoping to escape, Mitchell goes pedophile, locking lips with a pubescent and facing a visceral climax.

Still fro,m From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)Reportedly, Price had misgivings about the script and was unhappy with the final edit, feeling it too too extreme and devoid of the sense of nostalgia that drives his screen persona. His is a supporting role, no doubt due in part to his (clearly) failing health. Burr, co-writing with Mike Malone, Darin Scott, and Courtney Joyner, fires on all cylinders, without a weak link, and despite a relatively low budget. Obscure enough to rarely be listed, it’s more refreshingly original than the more familiar fare. Burr considers it as his only authentic film, having since been consigned to commission work.

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Anna Biller

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel

PLOT: A California witch who casts magic spells to seek out her true love finds that her lovers keep dying.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively unique—a blend of romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectic, and Technicolor melodramas—that perhaps it can only rightfully described as “weird.”

COMMENTS: One main stylistic feature of The Love Witch is the campy acting—Samantha Robinson’s Elaine speaks as if she’s always lost in an interior world of hearts and unicorns, making her sound insincere even when she’s at her most heartfelt. Other actors take an overly broad, TV-melodrama approach. This technique helps sustain the film’s sense of otherworldliness, but the other, and far more impressive, stylistic feature is the unreal, anachronistic, and impressively detailed mise-en-scene. A girly-girl café where the clientele all dress in pink and white with flowery hats—looking more like bridesmaids than ladies out for a spot of tea—while ethereal blondes play harps and sing medieval love hymns. The local burlesque house, in a lustful red-on-red color scheme, where dancers with feather boas never take it all off but ensorcell the drooling males nonetheless. The Renaissance Faire run by witches, where Elaine and her date “accidentally” end up wed in a mock pagan ceremony. The minutiae of Elaine’s witchcraft rituals, which at one point involves her honoring a corpse with her urine and a used tampon. Clever details and decorative ideas abound in nearly every scene. Reversing the seduction stereotype, Elaine uses a comically oversized brandy snifter to decrease her conquests’ inhibitions. Trish finds Elaine’s witchcraft altar full of bizarre potions and magickal totems, then walks into her adjoining bedroom to discover, oriented in exact mirror image position, a vanity set out with wig, perfume, and makeup.

The smart script is not simplistic in its satire; it prides itself on creating and holding contradictory views. Elaine and her friends toss out ideas about femininity that are sometimes laughably old-fashioned, but are sometimes still with us today, and trusts us to sort out which are which. Witchcraft is shown as harmless New Agey neo-paganism, no more or less ritually ridiculous than Christianity, but it’s also a source of implied abuse and exploitation, and a real threat to the community. And of course, the biggest contradiction of all is Elaine, a mixture of idealism and ruthless cunning, who expresses naïve ideas with a simple conviction that no one can effectively refute, simultaneously a victim and a serial victimizer.

Because the stylistic world Anna Biller creates in The Love Witch is cinematically familiar—with its widescreen compositions, brazen color schemes, cigarette smoking femme fatales and square-jawed cops—many are tempted to go hunting for movie references and homages. Indeed, I was reminded of The Birds (in Elaine’s rear-projection convertible ride up the California coast),  (the nude witchcraft rituals), The Trip (the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens when Elaine seduces the hippie professor) and TV’s “Dragnet” (in the sappy hard-boiled dialogue of the police squad room); others cite , Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as inspirations. But none of the scenes Biller stages are outright allusions or in-jokes. She absorbs the period style—particularly its vivacious use of the full chromatic scale—-without simply referencing a checklist of favorite films; you’ll search in vain for nods to her specific influences. The Love Witch is a Sixties-era Technicolor B-movie that could have been, but in an alternate universe at a slight tangent to our own. The biggest compliment I can give Biller is to say that she does something for 1960s Technicolor spectacles similar to what did for silents and early talkies: she uses antiquated techniques to create a timeless, abstract setting that reflects her own personality. It’s gratifying to see her receive critical praise for this monumentally inventive and deceptively intelligent feminist statement dressed in Satanic sexploitation robes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The results are wildly over-the-top, in a ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’-meets-‘Dark Shadows’ kind of way, but Biller’s commitment to her vision is weirdly endearing.”–Sean P. Means, The Salt Lake Tribune (contemporaneous)

1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

1972  is perhaps the most prolific year in the most prolific decade of horror and exploitation films. It’s also the year for what may be the quintessential midnight cult move: Pink Flamingos, now enshrined as one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Blood Freak, which is the first and only “Christian” movie to date about a turkey serial killer, is another Certified Weird 1972 exploitation picture. Competing with Freak fro sheer awfulness was Don Barton’s Zaat (AKA Blood Waters of Dr. Z), which went onto “MST3K” infamy.

In its Blu-ray presentation, ‘s maligned Baron Blood has proven better than its reputation, despite a miscast in the title role. Like most of Bava, it’s stylishly irresistible. The 1972 Amicus omnibuses Asylum and Tales from the Crypt both starred , and were critical and box office successes. Ben, Dr. Phibes Rise Again, and Beware The Blob were all inferior sequels—which is saying a lot in the case of an original monster who was just moving silly putty. tackled the two big undead kahunas (with plenty of added sex) in The Erotic Experiences of Frankenstein and Daughter of Dracula. The Count rose yet again in Count Dracula’s Great Love, starring Paul Naschy. Future King of Cartoons (William Marshall) and director William Crain fused horror with blacksploitation for the first time in Blacula. It was a enough of a box office success to warrant  (superior) sequel in 1973. Unfathomably busy, Cushing and teamed up for ‘ underrated Creeping Flesh, Gene Martin’s cult favorite Horror Express, Peter Sasdy’s misfire Nothing but the Night, and the Hammer opus Dracula AD 1972 (directed by Alan Gibson).

Widely scorned, Dracula A.D. 1972 reunited Cushing’s Van Helsing with Lee’s bloodsucker in a modern setting, even though Dracula himself is confined to a Gothic church. It’s one of ‘s favorite movies. The contemporaneous critical backlash was mostly justified. Lee, probably the best cinematic Count, is reduced to second vampire-in-waiting. But as an artifact of its time, Dracula A.D. 1972 is not entirely without virtue, enough to explain Burton’s affection.

It opens in the previous century with Dracula and Van Helsing locked in mortal combat aboard a stagecoach, which crashes, causing the vampire to be impaled on the spokes of the coach’s wheel. As Dracula attempts to free himself, a battered and bleeding Van Helsing interferes, driving the spokes in deep enough to snuff out the life of his nemesis before dying himself. Witnessing the scene is a Dracula disciple who, of course, leaves with the vampire’s relics (handy for later resurrection). Despite the preposterous   accidental impalement, it’s a red-blooded, Gothic prologue that is followed by 1972’s swinging hippies.

Still from Dracula 1972 ADInitially sounding more like old fuddy-duddy Edward Van Sloan than Peter Cushing, Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham, lectures his granddaughter Jessica (Hammer babe Stephanie Beacham) all about the wrong crowd and premarital sex. Pooh-poohing gramps, Jessica heads straight for the wrong crowd, Continue reading 1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

CAPSULE: CLOSET MONSTER (2015)

DIRECTED BY:  Stephen Dunn

FEATURING: Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams, Aliocha Schneider, Isabella Rossellini (voice)

PLOT: A closeted gay teenager who wants to be a horror makeup artist finds himself inhibited from the same-sex experiences he craves due to a traumatic hate crime he witnessed as a child.

Still from Closet Monster (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you want a coming out story, and you want it to be slightly weird, this is an option. If you want it really weird, you’d be better off with Der Samurai, however.

COMMENTS: In its short existence, the “coming out” film has already adopted certain cliches: the disapproving macho dad who fears a “wimp” son, the ambiguously homosexual/bisexual love interest, loss of virginity at an ecstasy-fueled rave. Closet Monster doesn’t throw away this boilerplate, but it does cleverly distract our attention from the usual structure with bizarre touches meant to evoke the troubled feeling of growing up different. Monster mixes in tropes from the horror movie (an appropriate import) and, in its most whimsical and salable touch, gives us Isabella Rossellini as the voice of Oscar’s hamster spirit guide (wittily, the pet is ambiguously gendered). A series of hallucinations, mostly stemming from a traumatic homophobic assault Oscar witnesses as a child, round out the weirdness.

Steven Dunn’s direction in his first feature is confident, although wen dreamy Wilder enters the picture the will-they-won’t-they second act does drag. The horror angle, which seemed like the film’s  hook, gets pushed aside for the type of dramatic development we’ve seen many times before. But the actors are universally competent, led by conflicted Jessup. Dad Abrams has a nicely complicated character: he is more of an all-around mess—well-meaning but impulse-control challenged—than the simple homophobe he might have been. The horror scenes return at the very end, when Oscar confronts his repressed longings, including hallucinations involving vomiting bolts and a gory impalement with an iron rod. It ends at one of the most marvelously idyllic locations in Newfoundland, a mystical modernist cabin set on a rock outcropping overlooking the sea. Closet Monster is not the whimsically surreal gay horror movie we’ve been waiting for, but it is a decent watch while we wait for someone to perfect the formula.

Closet Monster won the award for Best Canadian Film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. At the time of this writing you can catch it streaming on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Willfully weird tale of a gay youth in a world of confusion. Noisily off-kilter… the determined eccentricity of the entire conceit—liberally laced with moments of hallucinatory surrealism—weighs the movie down, creating an airless ambiance at odds with any youthful verve which might appeal to the viewer.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

 

1971 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, AND WILLARD

1971 began with one of the most stylish horror films ever produced: The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a near-perfect collaboration between director and star produced a “masterpiece” of a very different kind with Dracula vs.Frankenstein, featuring the most (unintentionally) frightening performance of poor .’s career and the most hilariously inept portrayal ever of the Transylvanian vampire count (by “Zandor Vorkov”). Director Eddie Romero and “star” John Ashley teamed up for both Beast of Blood and Beast of the Yellow Night, which may be as unimaginative as they sound, but would make a worthwhile, howling triple feature with Adamson’s opus.

 was still gifting the world lesbian vampires with Caged Virgins (AKA Requiem for a Vampire) and The Shiver of the Vampires. Following suit were Stephanie Rothman with The Velvet Vampire, Ray Austin’s The Virgin Witch (starring twins Anne and Vicki Michelle), and with the bluntly titled Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy, both starring the tragically short-lived cult figure . Not to be outdone, Hammer Studios contributed to the thriving same-sex bloodsucker subgenre with as a “Calgon Take Me Away” Countess Dracula (directed by Peter Sasdy), and with Lust for a Vampire (directed by Jimmy Sangster and starring Yutte Stensgaard). Neither of these were as explicit as they promised and probably should have been. Considerably better was another Hammer opus with identical siblings (Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson): Twins of Evil, stylishly directed by John Hough and featuring a superb authoritarian performance by . However, it was ‘s Belgian Daughters of Darkness, starring and Danielle Ouimet, that made the biggest impact, becoming an international cult hit that is still referenced today. Of course, hetero bloodsuckers were not be left out and had their moment under the sequel moon in The Return of Count Yorga (directed by Bob Kelljan and starring Robert Quarry), which failed to repeat its predecessor’s success. Night of Dark Shadows by Dan Curtis improved on the previous years effort, despite an absent Jonathan Frid. Oddly, it was the Japanese who were perhaps most suited to Transylvanian folklore in 1971 with Lake of Dracula (directed by Michio Yamamoto).

Still from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)Amando de Osario charted unexpected territory with his zombie monks in Tombs of the Blind Dead, the first of his Blind Dead series (he had previously made the unrelated vampire opus, Fangs Of The Living Dead, in 1968). Although short on actual plot, it’s arguably Osorio’s finest moment. Scenes of the blackened, dead Templars rising from their graves (resurrected by Satan) and mounting horses (juxtaposed to Anton Abril’s highly effective, eerily faint score) to ride into the slaughter (filmed in slow motion) are spine tingling.

These are zombies of a different sort who raise their swords to slash at victims, before draining their blood. Scenes of the Spanish Inquisition, failed crusades, misogynistic torture of women, and lesbianism are surprisingly low-key, and often poetically surreal. Although Osorio’s influences (including Mario Bava’s color palette) are in full evidence, his is a strongly original film, almost painterly. Decaying abbeys and a potential victim standing motionless to avoid the army of blind marauders evoke a sense of dread. Even a massacre on a train is artfully restrained.

Michael Winner presented a literal-minded prequel to Harry James’ Continue reading 1971 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, AND WILLARD

LIST CANDIDATE – BLUE SUNSHINE (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Jeff Lieberman

FEATURING: , Robert Walden, Mark Goddard, Deborah Winters, Ann Cooper, Ray Young, Charles Siebert, Richard Crystal, Alice Ghostley, Stefan Gierasch, Brion James

PLOT: A plague of victims go bald and turn into psychotic killers; the one common factor appears to be a variety of acid, Blue Sunshine, taken during their college days.

Still from Blue Sunshine (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Blue Sunshine usually gets classified as a horror/thriller with a brilliant premise behind it, but it’s also a twisted satire about what would later come to be known as “The Big Chill Generation.” It’s a lot tougher and less self-flattering than The Big Chill turned out to be. Maybe if The Big Chill had an unhinged leading man and psycho killers… but Blue Sunshine is the next best thing.

COMMENTS: “Did you ever hear the words ‘Blue Sunshine’… ?”

If it had come from grindhouse producers, a good alternate title for Blue Sunshine would have been Bad Acid, Dead Hippie,… well, make that Dead Ex-Hippie. Sort of a social satire within the parameters of a horror movie (which is pretty much Jeff Lieberman’s career in a nutshell, come to think of it), Blue Sunshine benefits from a clever premise: what if all those drug-scare films were right? It was just the right film at just the right time to skewer the Sixties generation, who were turning from lives of idealism and awareness towards materialism and narcissistic self-examination.

Even though there’s enough knowing laughs to keep the audience entertained, there’s also enough to keep them unsettled and on edge, mainly with the intense performance of Zalman King, whose protagonist might indeed turn out to be as unhinged as the Blue Sunshine victims. The violence, while relatively tame by today’s standards, also is unsettling. People get incinerated and children are threatened with knives. And there’s the minor game of guessing who might be affected and who isn’t. One clue: watch the hair.

Blue Sunshine first hit DVD as a Special Edition release from Synapse Films, which was transferred from a surviving print as the negative thought to be lost to time. In 2016 it got an upgrade to Blu-Ray from FilmCentrix, after the negative was discovered and restored.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Ringer – Lieberman’s first film, a pseudo-PSA that’s actually effective, but probably not in the way its sponsors realized.  A clear, scathing look at ‘Youth Culture’.

Trailer for Blue Sunshine.

FilmCentrix promo for the Blu-Ray HD release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of Blue Sunshine plays like a freakout version of The Crazies (1973)… All this is helped by the (deliberately?) stilted dialogue and wide-eyed performances, amping up the paranoia by making everything – and everyone – seem just that little bit off.”–Anton Bitel, Filmland Empire (2015 Screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: ALMA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rodrigo Blaas

PLOT: Young Alma encounters a toy shop containing a doll bearing an uncanny resemblance to her.

Still from Alma (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: In communicating its tale of terror in a style and medium almost uniformly associated with mainstream family-friendliness, Alma stands out as weird amidst today’s persistent stream of digital animation.

COMMENTS: As this site’s regular Saturday Short feature has proven, animation is one of the most fitting mediums for short-length cinematic weirdness. Whether minimalist or elaborate, animation offers a strong opportunity to evoke a particularly singular visual concept within a short frame of time.

Former Pixar employee Rodrigo Blaas—whose name appears in the credits of some of the studio’s most beloved features—has, with Alma, added his own particular twist to this well-established cinematic convention. Drawing on his past work, Blaas bring us his simple, independent tale of surreal horror in the bright, stylized CGI that’s now all but synonymous with modern mainstream animation.

In its themes and narrative, meanwhile, Alma recalls a more antiquated form of family entertainment. Its components—the snow upon slanted rooftops and narrow cobblestone alleys; the toy shop, at once quaint and sinister; the protagonist, a mischievous little one with the air of a vagabond—bring to mind the classical elements of old children’s’ books. The plotline, which imposes a nightmarish fate upon its young protagonist as punishment for a petty misdeed, evokes the Victorian cautionary tales that Hilare Belloc so famously lampooned.

Needless to say, this results in a strikingly unique piece of short cinema; especially considering that, despite mashing together conventions of children’s entertainment from opposite ends of the 20th century, it is very clearly not intended for children. The simple plot follows young Alma, who, prancing merrily down a snowy alleyway one day, encounters a toy shop, with a doll precisely resembling her in the window. Unable to resist this singular temptation, she heads into the unattended shop to take the doll for herself, and meets horrifying consequences—ones that add a twist to the primal fear of endless damnation.

Told, like many short works of weirdness, entirely without dialogue, the story of Alma is, as befitting the nature of Blaas’ past work, communicated via five minutes’ worth of highly expressive visuals that quietly convey basic narrative and subtle details alike. Alma’s slightly ragged appearance hints at her humble background, lending context to her sticky-fingered nature. Hundreds of children have chalked their names on the wall in the alleyway in which she finds the shop. It’s also lined with what might be interpreted as a number of “Missing” posters, ominously hinting at the shop’s scourge of terror. And the store window, picturesque upon first glance, takes on the appearance of a leering monster’s gaping maw when examined more closely.

In terms of weirdness, Alma has its more obvious elements: most notably, flashes of surreal, nightmarish images when Alma seizes the doll. The genuine uniqueness of the short, however, is found in its bold effort to render an artistically-driven work of cinema in a style that’s become emblematic of mega-budget commercial family cinema. The contrast is striking. As an artistic choice, it’s not unprecedented, but Blaas, having come directly off the set of some of the industry’s leading titles, evokes the style with particular authenticity.

Development is currently underway for a Dreamworks-backed feature-length adaptation of the short. As many have already predicted, even with Blaas himself at the helm, it seems highly likely that this horrifying tale, effective chiefly for its simplicity, will lose more than a little of its punch when stretched into feature-length. If nothing else, however, said feature might draw a little more much-deserved attention to the original short.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is a fairytale of the old kind, and if you have any sensitivity at all, you’ll be shivering as the snow drifts down at the end.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

Alma from Rodrigo Blaas on Vimeo.

AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART TWO (1972-1974)

Part Two of a two-part series on Amicus horror anthologies; Part One is here.

Tales from the Crypt (1972, directed by and written by Milton Subotsky) is the first of two anthologies directly adapted from Amicus’ spiritual inspiration, EC Comics.

A group of five explorers encounter a crypt keeper (no, not that one, but rather as a hammy monk) in an underground cavern. Each are shown the fate that awaits them.

“And All Through the House” taps into Francis’ best qualities, making for an excellent opening segment. While her daughter is sleeping fitfully upstairs waiting for Saint Nicholas to arrive on Christmas Eve, Joan Collins is smashing a poker over her husband’s skull so she can collect his insurance money. Meanwhile, an inmate has escaped from a nearby asylum, dressed as Santa Claus, and someone is going to open the door. Collins is, naturally, perfectly cast as a bitch from hell in the guise of a sex bomb. The dialogue is pared down to bare minimum, making this a visual segment, alight in Christmas colors and blood, and choreographed to holiday music. It’s the original Silent Night, Deadly Night.

“Reflection Of Death” is the weakest link here, about an adulterer (Ian Hendry) who leaves his wife and kids and suffers the consequences when his car crashes. Its twist ending is disappointingly inevitable, but Francis (barely) holds our attention with some innovative POV perspectives.

Still from "Poetic Justice" from Tales from the Crypt (1972)“Poetic Justice” features a superb, moving performance from as Grimsdyke. He’s one of those despicable poor people: you know the ones who are always looking for free stuff, health insurance, and government handouts, just like the ones Jesus used to kick in the ass. Although a little senile, he’s kindhearted, loved by the neighborhood children, and communicates with his deceased wife (who is poignantly represented by a portrait of Cushing’s actual late wife). He’s also hated by his neighbors, especially the greedy, uptight James Elliott (Robin Phillips), who drives Grimsdyke to suicide and… this may be the first and only film of a zombie with an elegiac heart, forced to rip out the heartless. Cushing channels his grief to craft what may be his finest character acting.

“Wish You Were Here” is a pallid reworking of “The Monkey’s Paw,” and delivers a “moral lesson” about being careful what you ask the genie for and how you ask it. Neither Richard Greene (as a zombie) nor Barbara Murray can salvage it.

“Blind Alleys” features delivering a strong performance as a blind nursing home resident revolting against dictatorial director Nigel Patrick, who is so adept at patriarchal evil that we Continue reading AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART TWO (1972-1974)