Tag Archives: Horror

LIST CANDIDATE: GOD TOLD ME TO (1976)

AKA Demon; God Told Me to Kill

DIRECTED BY: Larry Cohen

FEATURING: Tony Lo Bianco, Richard Lynch, Andy Kaufman, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sidney, Sam Levene, Mike Kellin

PLOT: A rash of murders are committed by people who all give “God told me to do it” as their only motive. A New York City police detective must find out why.

Still from God Told Me To (1975)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A conventionally produced movie, God Told Me To has a bizarre story featuring some very strange characters, including an extraterrestrial man with a face that nobody can see clearly and a vagina in his ribcage.

COMMENTS: In this complex occult/sci-fi thriller, Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection, The 7-Ups) plays police Lieutenant Nicholas, who unravels a mysterious spree of killings committed by fellow New Yorkers from all walks of life. Each claim that God compelled them to commit the crimes  Many kill themselves or die after immediately after making the the revelation, complicating Nicholas’ job.

The film opens with a sniper perched on a rooftop water tower. After he shoots random people in the street,  Nicholas climbs up to talk to him and the man jumps to his death.  Nicholas is contacted by a representative of a sinister cult who seems to understand what is behind the crimes. While the cop tries to track down the cult members, the investigation takes him on a twisted journey into the past, including, to his surprise, his own past as he strives to solve this dark and obfuscated mystery. Nothing is as it appears to be. As he soon discovers, Lt. Nicholas is also not who or what he seems to be either.

While he attempts to unravel the puzzle behind the killings, Nicholas investigates his own birth as well as other strange phenomenon from bygone years. The answer to the riddle is morbidly fascinating. God Told Me To is one of those unique, non-formulaic 1970’s films that just aren’t made anymore.

The enigmatic Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams) has one of his most interesting and bizarre roles ever in this exciting and odd film. The piece features an early, rare cinematic appearance by Andy Kaufman in a non comedic role.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This cult-fave Larry Cohen epic, features his trademark NYC locations, vividly drawn characters, realistically handled situations and dialogue, and one hell of a weird premise.”—VideoHound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics

THE CREMATOR [SPALOVAC MRTVOL] (1969)

The Cremator has been promoted onto the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made; the Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED  BY: Juraj Herz

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, and Zora Bozinová

PLOT: In this mesmerizing, Gothic horror film, a funerary specialist becomes obsessed with what he believes to be the nobility of his calling, with terrifyingly tragic and bizarre results.

THE CREMATOR

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Cremator treats unusual, morbid, taboo subject matter in a visually dreamy way that is artful without being  gimmicky.

COMMENTS: In late 1930’s Prague, Kopfrking (Hrusínský) is a misguided, enigmatic crematorium operator. He is an impeccably groomed, eerie, and meticulous figure, always talking in a hypnotic, soft spoken, poetic manner.  He is overly preoccupied with mortality, morbidity, and the human soul, and deeply devoted to the funerary arts.

Kopfrking feels a physical affection for the instrumentality of his trade, lovingly caressing the equipment of the crematory process.  He speaks constantly, literally and metaphorically, of death and the liberation of the soul through the process of cremation.

As the story progresses, he becomes increasingly obsessed with his work, finding it glorifying and cathartic.  He sees visions of the ghost of his living wife in her youth, along with his future incarnation, as he begins a spiraling descent into fantasy and madness.  He is on a mission to free the souls of the deceased (and in time the not-so deceased) through the pyrolization of human flesh, be it living or dead—just as long as that flesh is consumed and vaporized by fire.

The pre-WWII German propaganda machine is enveloping Eastern Europe, polarizing aspiring Nazis and oppositionists.  Drawn toward the philosophy of the Third Reich, Kopfrking becomes morbidly obsessed with racial purity and the percentage of German blood flowing within his own veins—literally, to the point of having his vessels opened and the contents examined.  While The Cremator is not a raving anti-Nazi film, it uses the political ideology as an allegory for exploring the phenomenon of sweeping, consuming mass delusion and insanity.

The gathering of Nazi forces on the border offers Kopfrking an opportunity to realize his misguided aspirations on a grand scale, one much larger than he could have ever hoped for, one seemingly without limit.  Before applying his fervor and passion to the task, he hatches a plan to betray and destroy his own acquaintances, colleagues and family.

While there are elements of black satire in the The Cremator, the movie is so compelling as to nearly overshadow it.  The film insidiously and steadily flows to its inevitable and horrifying conclusion like a hot rivulet of liquefied fat.

The production design is crisp and symmetrical.  Stanislav Milota’s stunning black and white cinematography is haunting and beautiful.  It features successions of extreme closeups that emphasize the slightly grotesque and disturbing features of the biological condition.  Milota’s use of black and white film stock’s enhanced tonal range is artfully employed to focus attention on rich textures and multitudes of shades.  This gives The Cremator a uniquely unsettling dreamlike quality.  The musical score by Zdenek Liska is alluring, phantasmic, and aesthetically intriguing. Viewing The Cremator is akin to experiencing a nightmare that one is reluctant to wake from.

The Cremator was a Czech nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this 1968 black comedy in black and white is undeniably creepy—once director Juraj Herz enters the fractured mind of his protagonist, he refuses to budge.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: DEADGIRL (2008)

DIRECTED  BY: Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel

FEATURING: Jenny Spain, Shiloh Fernandez,

PLOT: Two high school delinquents find an undead young woman and use her as a sex slave.
Still from Deadgirl (2008)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Deadgirl is weird by virtue of its highly unconventional subject matter, which is treated in as matter-of-factly as a conventional drama.  It’s also better than you might think;  Deadgirl is one of the best necrophilia-themed movies I’ve seen.

COMMENTS:  When I read any description of a horror movie that includes the words, “teenager” or “students,” it stops me in my tracks, and I groan in disappointment.  However, it was conducive to the plot of this horror yarn that the two antagonistic protagonists be just that.

The pair are working class high school misfits.  (I must note that they are little more working class than the jocks and cheerleaders at most high schools, who stridently compensate for their ordinariness by engaging in meaningless make-work activities and ardently conform in order to raise their perceived social status.)  The two boys in this film are misfits only in the sense that they aren’t on the football team.   Like all teenage boys (and girls, let’s be honest) they are also dying of horniness.

Rickie (Fernandez) predictably covets a cheerleader possessing no redeemable qualities, who is saving herself to be date raped by the captain of the football team some drunken Homecoming night.  One afternoon, his friend J.T. (Segan) convinces him to skip class to drink beer in an abandoned insane asylum.  Where else?

Once there, they discover an inexplicably re-animated, shapely young dead girl (Spain) Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: DEADGIRL (2008)

CAPSULE: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Victor Halperin

FEATURING: Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A Haitian plantation owner seeks the help of local witch doctor and zombie mogul ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to bewitch another man’s bride.

Still from White Zombie (1932)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTWhite Zombie can send quite the uncanny chill down your spine and is well worth a look for those seeking to soak up some classic Gothic atmosphere, but its weird elements are too submerged for it to make the List.

COMMENTS: Although talkies had been around for five years when White Zombie came out, the film is suffused with the sensibility of a silent movie, with the machinations of mustachioed villains causing damsels in flapper bobs to daintily faint.  The players still use the exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures of actors used to conveying emotions by pantomime, and when they do speak, they over-inflect, as if concerned with projecting their words into the last rows of a theater.  This mannered, operatic style, where the characters magnify their fear, grief, malice and wonder in an recognizable but unnatural way, plays right into Bela Lugosi’s larger-than-life persona.  The Hungarian, here again the soul of suave degeneracy, dominates the proceedings in what may be the second best performance of his career.  In an era where we’ve become used to completely naturalistic performances and sets, White Zombie‘s primitive aesthetic seems romantic and, yes, a little weird; when this stately style is wedded to such a stark good versus evil storyline, the results can be magical, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell.  Even the grain in the picture, the hiss in the soundtrack, and the jumps where a few frames of film are missing add to the dreamlike effect. (Watching White Zombie, it’s easy to see how Guy Maddin became intoxicated with this era of film).  The narrative holds few surprises, there are dry patches, and the action climax isn’t exactly a thrill ride.  But White Zombie features many wonderfully disquieting moments that worm their way under your skin and make you squirm in your seat, including the Haitian funeral set to ancient African tribal chants and the damned souls powering the creaking mill wheel at Legendre’s sugar cane factory.

This was the first film to bring the Haitian idea of the zombie—a soulless, re-animated corpse brought to life by a combination of drugs and witchcraft—to the cinema.  Lugosi, just a year off Dracula, was a hot horror commodity but a notoriously bad businessman: he only received $800 for the role of Legendre. 

White Zombie is in the public domain and therefore can be found in many different DVD packages. The best picture comes from the restored Roan Group print (now released by Alpha Video). Although the source material used is not pristine, the best value is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection (also containing Carnival of Souls and several other worthwhile titles, along with some stunning losers like Creature from the Haunted Sea). White Zombie is also in the public domain and can be legally viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Contemporary critics  found White Zombie childish, old-fashioned, and melodramatic.  They might have allowed that it was also a Gothic fairy tale filled with traditional symbols, dreamlike imagery, echoes of Romanticism, and (probably unintentional) psychosexual imagery.”–Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films

SATURDAY SHORT: NACHTMAHR GEISTERGANG

This week’s short, Nachtmahr: Geistergang, (Nightmare: Ghost Trail) was written by another fan of ours, Kacper Radecki.   This is visually and aurally one of the stranger shorts I’ve come across.  Each scene is quite unique. There’s a creature (which took an entire week to make the costume for) dancing in the forest, a series of ruins, a pipe scene, and a bug trying to escape a jar. All of which, along with the whispers and screams in the background, make it true to it’s title; a nightmare.

Kacper is a self-taught photographer and director who plans to study film in the United States in 2010. Our best wishes go out to him in furthering his passion for film.

For a look at Kacper’s photography visit this link.

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

fourstar

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

Still from Dracula (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

CAPSULE: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING:  Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Following the events of Evil Dead II, Ash finds himself flung backwards in time into a medieval land, where his failure to retrieve the Book of the Dead enables evil forces to muster a massive army of stop-motion animated skeletons.

Army of Darkness

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEvil Dead II struggled mightily to obtain its weird credentials, and just barely qualified for its weird badge thanks to the “cabin fever” sequence in the middle portion of the film.  In the third entry of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, director Sam Raimi distills what he thinks is the popular essence of Evil Dead II, emerging with a concentrated dose mixing ghoulish comedy with a stiff shot of badass working class hero Ash.  Weirdness was discarded as a waste product, although traces remain.

COMMENTS:  The beginning of Army of Darkness rewrites the tale of how Ash came to be recognized as the “Chosen One” at the end of Evil Dead II, but consistent storytelling (along with respect for the laws of physics) has never been a high priority in this series.   Since the  midpoint of the second film, Raimi’s Evil Dead emphasis for the trilogy has been comedy, and Army of Darkness is tongue-in-cheek from start to finish.  As an action/comedy/fantasy/horror hybrid, Army of Darkness pulls in too many directions to hang together as a story, much less integrate itself with the rest of the series, but the manic energy is a lot of fun, and the film does work on a scene-by-scene basis.  The flick dips into the Three Stooges tribute well even more than Evil Dead II did; in one funny scene, every orifice on Ash’s face is invaded by skeletal fingers from still buried corpses, despite his best defensive maneuvers (our hero never learned from Curly’s mistakes—don’t introduce your tongue as a new target by sticking it out in triumph after successfully blocking the dual finger eye poke).  Gags aside, the comic momentum overwhelming comes from Bruce Campbell’s Ash, who has transformed from a much abused punching-bag for macabre forces into an arrogant, wisecracking hero.  Campbell adopts just the right campy, parodic tone when reprising hit action catchphrases like “Groovy” or fresh favorites like “Just me, baby.”   Ash’s overweening, usually unjustified bravado is the comic binding that keeps the scattershot script from blowing away in the wind.  For fans of weirdness, the best bits are the hallucinatory scenes after Ash takes refuge from a shakycam assault inside a windmill: for unexplained reasons, he ends up by menaced by a gang of tiny Ashes in a “Gulliver’s Travels” parody, then sprouts an Evil Ash from his shoulder.  These scenes take place at approximately the same stage in the movie as the “cabin fever” sequences did in Evil Dead II, and may have been intended as one of the many, many nods to the previous film.  Another high point is the army of stop motion animated skeletons (a tribute to Ray Harryhausen).  Each member of the bony horde is brilliantly individualized and detailed; particularly striking is the martial band, beating drums made from skulls and playing flutes fashioned from arm bones.   Overall, Army of Darkness is a worthy, if commodified and popularized, sequel, and a solid roller coaster for fans of fantastic film who aren’t hung up on logic.

Army of Darkness was the transitional film for Raimi between campy experimental films like Crimewave and Evil Dead II and purely commercial fare such as the Spider-Man series.  The large scale battle and professional action scenes in Army seem almost like audition reels for making a Major Motion Picture.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a goofy, hyperventilated send-up of horror films and medieval warfare, so action-packed it sometimes seems less like a movie than like a cardiovascular workout for its stars.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)

AKA Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn “What distinguishes Evil Dead II is that it isn’t a horror film with comic moments or a comedy with frightening moments. It is instead a true horror-comedy that taps into the fact that both comedy and horror rely on weirdness, incongruity, and shock.”–Victoria Large, Brattle Theater Film Notes

Must See

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING: Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Young Ash takes his girlfriend to a deserted cabin in the woods for a weekend of romance; unfortunately, the hideout was the former abode of a deceased archaeologist who had discovered a “Book of the Dead” the ancients believed could call forth an evil spirit and allow it to possess the bodies of the living and the dead.  Ash plays an old tape by the professor in which he reads the magical words of summoning, and the spirit does indeed come and possess Ash’s girlfriend (whom he is forced to dispatch gruesomely).  That’s only the beginning of Ash’s troubles, however, as, trapped in the cabin, now must fight off a horde of demonic presences, at first all alone and later with the help of the professor’s daughter and her companions.

Still from Evil Dead II (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • Evil Dead II is much more a remake of, rather than a sequel to, Raimi’s low-budget drive-in hit The Evil Dead (1981) (although that point is technically debated among fans). Where The Evil Dead was a straightforward horror movie, Evil Dead II is a comedy in a horror setting.  Actor Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash from the first film; it was this performance that made him into a cult actor.
  • This was Raimi’s third feature film, after The Evil Dead and the weird, Coen brothers scripted comedy Crimewave! (1985).  He would go on to mainstream success when he was tapped to direct the Spider-Man series.
  • Powerful horror novelist Stephen King, a fan of the first Evil Dead, introduced Raimi to Dino de Laurentiis and convinced the producer to fund Evil Dead II after Raimi declined an offer to adapt King’s story Thinner.
  • Followed by a sequel, Army of Darkness (1992).  Rumors of a fourth film in the series have circulated since the mid nineties; currently, an Evil Dead IV is listed as “in development” on the Internet Movie Database, although this is far from an assurance that a fourth film will be made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Ash fighting his own disembodied hand: a scene that starts out creepy, but becomes a slapstick routine, ending up in a groan-inducing pun.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Oddly, Evil Dead II‘s credentials as a weird film are called into


Original trailer for Evil Dead II

question by its almost unqualified embrace by critics and gorehounds alike: can anything that is so widely beloved, anything that fails to alienate either the high or the lowbrow, really be authentically weird?  In fact, Evil Dead II is only slightly weird, but the events of the cabin feverish middle portion of the film—where the battered Ash seems to be hallucinating the horrific events—are just bizarre enough to make Evil Dead II eligible for inclusion on list of the weirdest films of all time.  Add to those scenes the over-the-top gore, slapstick and constant surprises of the film’s last half, and you get a lovable mish-mash of a movie with a one-of-a-kind comic tone that is too exhilarating to be left off a list of the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  The quality and sheer fun of Evil Dead II don’t need a defense.  It’s hard to Continue reading 33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)

WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY

“What is weird?” is a question I’m sometimes asked. I don’t like to answer the question, because I think we’re all familiar with that “weird” feeling, and I’m more interested in seeing what other people think is weird than in defining it myself. In some ways, the problem we have identifying a weird movie is like the problem Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had identifying obscenity: “it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” The weird is what makes you feel… well, weird.

Still, we can see trends of movies that tend to be recurrently weird. Of these, the one species that comes to mind is the horror film.  Of all the popular film genres, horror films are the ones that most consistently give us that “weird” feeling.  If we’re looking for a word to describe the subclass of the weird that horror films exploit, I suggest the term “uncanny.”

The Wikipedia dictionary defines uncanny as “strange, and mysteriously unsettling (as if supernatural); weird,” which perfectly describes the feeling that the best horror movies seek to evoke.  I believe “uncanny” has more of a strict supernatural connotation than “weird,” which is often used simply to describe anything that deviates from the norm. You might speak of a boy as being a “weird kid” if he insisted on wearing a tie to school and was obsessed with Bigfoot, but you probably wouldn’t call him an “uncanny kid” unless his eyes glowed like one of the tykes from Village of the Damned (1960).

For a long time, “weird” and “supernatural horror” were almost synonyms.  The pulp magazine “Weird Tales” was founded in 1923, focusing mostly on horror but also including fantasy fiction (such as Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories).  In 1938 H.P. Lovecraft wrote Supernatural Horror in Literature and used “weird” essentially as a synonym for “supernatural horror,” devoting chapters to “The Weird Tradition in America” and “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles.”  In his Introduction, Lovecraft wrote, “[t]he one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY

32. PHANTASM (1979)

AKA The Never Dead (Australia)

“…when you’re dealing with a movie with this many oddball ideas, and a director who’s not afraid to ‘go weird’ just because he wants to, your best bet is probably just to keep quiet, enjoy the ride, and then see how you feel once the whole crazy experience is over with.”–Scott Weinberg, Fearnet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Angus Scrimm, , Bill Thornbury,

PLOT:  While secretly observing services for a deceased family friend, recently orphaned 13 year-old Mike witnesses an impossible feat performed by the funeral director known only as The Tall Man.  Later, while following the older brother he adores to a tryst in a cemetery, he spoils the romantic ambiance when he tries to warn his brother of a dwarf-like creature he sees scurrying in the shadows.  The Tall Man begins appearing in Mike’s nightmares, and he journeys alone to the isolated funeral home to gather evidence to support his belief that the mortician is responsible for the strange happenings in his New England town.

Still from Phantasm (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • The kernel of the idea for Phantasm came from a dream writer/director Coscarelli had in his late teens where he was “being pursued through a corridor by some kind of flying steel ball.”
  • Coscarelli, only 23 years old when Phantasm began production, not only wrote and directed the film but also served as cinematographer and editor.
  • The film originally received an “X” rating in the United States (a kiss of death at that time for anyone seeking wide theatrical distribution) due to the blood and violence in the silver sphere scene (and the shot of urine seeping out of the dead man’s pants leg).  The scene is frightening and effective, but relatively tame by twenty-first century standards.  According to a widely repeated anecdote, Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin, who liked the film, intervened with the MPAA to secure an “R” rating for Phantasm. Per co-producer Paul Pepperman, however, it was someone from the distribution company who convinced the ratings board to change their verdict.  Champlin’s role was actually to recommend Universal pick the picture up for distribution.
  • A scene where the Tall Man appears in Mike’s dream was selected as the 25th entry in Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The film cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to make, and eventually earned over $15 million.
  • Phantasm spawned four sequels, all directed by Coscarelli. None were as well received or fondly remembered as the original.  Coscarelli would eventually score an underground hit again with the bizarre horror/comedy Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Without a doubt, the unexplained appearance of the flying sphere zooming through the sublimely creepy marble halls of the mausoleum.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPhantasm appears to be a standard horror film at first blush, but as it heedlessly races along from one fright to another, it becomes increasingly obvious that the plot is not resolving, or at least not resolving in any sensible way.  It is also obvious that this scattershot plotting, which elevates atmosphere and psychological subtext  by frustrating the literal sense, is a deliberate choice to “go weird” and not a result of incompetence.


Original trailer for Phantasm

COMMENTS: Mike wakes up to discover the Tall Man looming over the head of his bed like Continue reading 32. PHANTASM (1979)