Tag Archives: Independent film

275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

“God gave him a calling in life, and that was to make pornography.”–George Kuchar on Curt McDowell

DIRECTED BY: Curt McDowell

FEATURING: Marion Eaton, Melinda McDowell, Moira Benson, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Rick Johnson, Maggie Pyle,

PLOT: On a dark and stormy night in the Nebraska hinterlands, several individuals on the road end up taking shelter at “Prairie Blossom”, an old dark house that is the dominion of alcoholic matron Gert Hammond (Eaton). Everyone present has secrets and obsessions that are brought to light, and pair off in various combinations for sexual liaisons. The group also finds itself trapped inside the house by a gorilla rampaging outside.

Still from Thundercrack! (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Producers John Thomas (who briefly appeared as country singer Simon Cassidy) and Charles Thomas were film students of Thundercrack! actor/writer George Kuchar, classmates of director Curt McDowell, and heirs to a fortune from the Burger Chef fast food chain, which they used to fund the movie. They also provided a rooms in their home for the shoot.
  • George Kuchar was a legend in the underground film industry, making hundred of short, campy avant-garde films together with his twin brother Mike. Noteworthy titles include Sins of the Fleshapoids and Hold Me While I’m Naked (both from 1966).
  • Actress Melinda McDowell was director Curt McDowell’s sister.
  • Kuchar and McDowell were rumored to be lovers.
  • The movie was shot for $9,000 and $40,000 in deferred costs.
  • Buck Henry used his clout as a judge to set up a (scandalous) screening at the 1976 Los Angeles Film Festival.
  • The original negatives disappeared and only five 16mm prints of the film were struck. One print was seized by Canadian authorities and three had been edited in an ineffectual attempt to make the film more marketable. The badly-damaged but uncut fifth print was primarily utilized for the transfer of the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release by Synapse Films.
  • El Rob Hubbard’s[1] Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Among the various obvious (and mainly pornographic) images to choose from, the one that sums up the spirit of Thundercrack! is the publicity photo of Gert and Bing in a melodramatic clinch—Bing in a wedding dress, Gert staring off into the horizon. It’s iconic, yet subversive, and pretty much encapsulates the film’s mood.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Versatile cucumbers; pickled husbands; amorous bipeds

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The collision of several elements: the lurid melodramatics along with the hardcore action, the visual stylization and the complex wordplay, all combine to make a film much more engaging and—dare I say it—innocent than one would expect from a mid 1970s hardcore sex parody film. Or, is it a parody film with porno elements? You decide…


Brief scene from Thundercrack!

COMMENTS: “What the heck is going on here—some sort of communal therapy group? Is that what this is?!!”—Bing

That’s probably a fair assessment of Thundercrack!, Curt McDowell’s Continue reading 275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

  1. Fun Fact: actress “Maggie Pyle” and her husband (one of the crew members) were my landlords for a short time in San Francisco in the early 90’s. []

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)

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)

 

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)

270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”―Henry David Thoreau

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: David Blair

FEATURING: David Blair

PLOT: A “supernatural photographer” and beekeeper searching for evidence of the afterlife buys a hive of rare, disease-resistant Mesopotamian bees. Years later, his grandson Jacob, who works as a software engineer designing flight simulators for warplanes, inherits the insects. The hive gives him visions, then drones pierce his skin and insert a crystal—which allows him to see the bees’ version of television—to direct him in his destiny as a metaphysical assassin.

Still from Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wax took six years to complete and was partially funded with grants from German Public Television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and other private and state charitable endowments.
  • Jacob’s grandfather, James “Hive” Maker, is played by (in a non-speaking role).
  • First broadcast on German television in 1991, this shot-on-video feature never received a true theatrical release, although it was blown up to 16mm film for limited screenings in 1993.
  • The New York Times reported that Wax was be the first feature-length motion picture to be broadcast on the Internet.
  • A “hypermedia” version of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is available for free viewing at a site hosted by the University of Virginia. The movie is available to watch or download for free on Vimeo under a Creative Commons license.
  • Two years ago, Blair said that he was still working on a sequel, which has been in progress for at least seven years.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, in a movie with so many digital distortions and abstract psychedelic graphics, it’s the shots of Jacob in his white beekeeping suit that stick in the mind the most—because, absurdly, he almost never takes it off, whether trudging through the steaming desert or walking past banks of supercomputers at his job at a military facility. Even when cuddling with his wife in front of the TV, he only takes off his hat. The suit becomes both a symbol of Jacob’s insular insanity, and a low budget substitute for a spacesuit a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jacob ventures into cosmic realms far beyond ordinary human conception.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Semi-intelligent missiles; the dead on the Moon; the Planet of Television

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a “documentary” about a man who is sent to the Planet of the Dead via bee television in order to kill the reincarnation of his grandfather’s brother-in-law, thereby becoming Cain, before being reincarnated in paradise. I think. The story is utterly insane, although it makes complete sense to bees.

Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees [10:00/85:00] from David Blair on Vimeo.

The first ten minutes of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

COMMENTS: When I first watched Wax, or the Discovery of Television Continue reading 270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

CAPSULE: SCREAMPLAY (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Rufus B. Seder

FEATURING: Rufus B. Seder, , Katy Bolger

PLOT: Young Edgar Allen comes to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and settles in at a fleabag motel; he incorporates his revenge fantasies into his murder-mystery screenplay, but finds that the killings he writes about occur in real life.

Still from Screamplay (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an oddball tongue-in-cheek horror melodrama, but there’s nothing tremendously weird about it.

COMMENTS: In his introduction to the DVD edition of Screamplay, calls Rufus B. Seder the “ of Tromaville.” While that’s more than a bit of a stretch, it’s true that this classic horror homage, distributed (but not made) by Troma just before they stumbled onto the lucrative Toxic Avenger formula, is extremely highbrow by the company’s gore-comedy standards. Aside from the minuscule budget, it’s unlike anything else in their catalog. It’s far enough outside the mainstream that George “Sins of the Fleshapoids” Kuchar took on a rare acting role outside of his own productions (he’s wonderfully sleazy here as the heavy).

The story is simple: a series of murders among the dregs of Hollywood—would-be writers, actresses, agents, and producers—holed up in a low-rent motel are linked to a script being churned out by an eager but naive young screenwriter. The style, however, is more impressive. Rufus B. Seder’s influences are obvious: from the Expressionistic shadows of Nosferatu to the cheap B-movies of the 30s and 40s that vainly but valiantly tried to exploit that atmosphere (there’s even a sly nod to Plan 9 from Outer Space when a cop absentmindedly scratches his face with his revolver). Most of the time Screamplay looks like a 30s period piece you might catch on the Late Late Show, complete with a scratchy public domain quality transfer, but there are moments that would not be out of place in a Guy Maddin movie—or an early draft of Barton Fink as done by a poverty row studio. Seder’s performance seems to be at least partially modeled on Bill Woods’ wild-eyed mugging in Maniac—his innocent expression darkens and his eyes turn insane at the drop of a plot point. The ganja-inspired hallucination with a pair of murderous hands appearing in a cloud of pot-smoke also recalls ‘s maniacal epic.

The sets are very basic, but with overdramatic lighting, they achieve a melodramatic budget Expressionism. The blocky motel stairs leading to nowhere reach a minimalist sort of Surrealism, as does the police station set—basically just a raised podium reading “Hollywood Police Dept.,” flanked by Greek pillars with light bulbs on top. The story is set in no time in particular; the style recalls the 1930s, naturally, but occasional anachronisms like a roller-skating transvestite mugger add another layer of absurdity. Overall, it’s an impressive triumph of style over budget. Still, unless you’re obsessed with 20s and 30s horror, I wouldn’t recommend rushing out and trying to find Screamplay; but, if you do, I’d be willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.

Rufus B. Seder never made another movie after this one; he went into the production of holographic murals instead (examples of his work are included as a special feature on the DVD). It’s a shame, because Seder has clear talent and may have been able to make a truly great weird movie down the line had he stuck with it. He seems to have gotten movies out of his system with this project, but at least he found a niche for his creative impulses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…possibly the best Troma movie you’ve never heard of… with very few exceptions, [it] would feel right at home on a double bill with the classics from the twenties, thirties, and forties it so lovingly homages.”–James Lasome, Horrorfreak News (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ShaneWreck,” who characterized it as “[a] bizarre, expressionistic satire on Hollywood.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

“The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”–Aunt Ida, Female Trouble

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Michel Potter

PLOT:  Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport runs away from home, gets knocked up by a rapist, and turns to a life of crime to help pay for the daughter she hates. After a brief and disastrous marriage, Dawn is scarred for life after her ex-husband’s Aunt Ida throws acid in her face. Transformed into a freak celebrity by a salon-owning couple, Dawn embarks upon a murder spree before an inevitable trip to the electric chair.

Still from Female Touble (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shot on a $25,000 budget, Female Trouble is puke poet laureate John Waters’ riotous followup to his midnight cult hit, Pink Flamingos. Waters capitalized on the previous film’s surprise success and advertised Female Trouble as having the returning cast of Pink Flamingos. It is the second entry in what Waters later called his “Trash Trilogy,” which begins with Flamingos and ends with Desperate Living.
  • After acting in Waters’ films for twelve years, this was David Lochary’s last screen appearance. He was cast for 1977’s Desperate Living but bled to death as the result of a fall while under the influence of PCP shortly before filming began.
  • Waters’ tagline for Female Trouble was “A high point in low taste.”
  • Divine based part of her portrayal of Dawn on her nightclub act, during which she threw mackerel at the audience and claimed to be a mass murderer.
  • Female Trouble was dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, of the Manson Family, who partly inspired the film’s theme of “crime is beauty.” The wooden toy helicopter in the film’s credits was Watson’s gift to Waters after a prison visit. (Waters later said that he regretted the dedication).
  • Alfred Eaker‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dawn jumping up and down on a trampoline, wearing a mohawk and a sparkly pantsuit, at her big performance art showcase.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Divine rapes Divine; chewed umbilical cord; Auntie in a birdcage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An expressionistic nightmare set in the hell of East Coast suburbia highlighting the rise and fall of a 300 pound transvestite mass murderer, Female Trouble reaches its first climax of lunacy when Dawn chops off Aunt Ida’s hand, locks her up in an oversized birdcage, and goes on her daughter for joining the Hare Krishnas. A second bouncing-off-the-wall climax follows when Dawn murders audience members as performance art before going down in a blaze-of-glory finale that could compete with Cody Jarrett blowing himself up or Tony Montana rat-a-tat-tatting away after being riddled with bullets. Accompanying all that is a beauty myth from the bowels of a white trash hell that would send Naomi Wolf screaming for sanctuary. Female Trouble is even more subversive than Pink Flamingos.


Short clip from Female Trouble (1974)

COMMENTS: On the surface, Female Trouble may appear to be Continue reading 267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

“I was surprised by reactions to the film. I thought people would find it funny or absurd, but people look really shaken when they come out. When we screened it at South by Southwest, there was a filmmaker I know who makes very strange films. And afterward, he looked like he had been through the wringer: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘Oh, come on.’ What can seem fun to one person can seem totally deranged to someone else.”–Jim Hosking, Rolling Stone

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo

PLOT: Big Ronnie eats an extremely greasy diet and runs a scam tour of L.A. disco locations with his unmarried adult son and live-in cook Brayden. At night he transforms into a lard-soaked monster who strangles people. When Brayden catches the eye of a girl on the tour, Big Ronnie becomes jealous and determines to seduce her himself.

Still from The Greasy Strangler (2016)
BACKGROUND
:

  • Jim Hosking worked as a music video and commercial director making short films on the side since 2003. His big break came when his bizarre and transgressive “G is for Grandad” segment of ABCs of Death 2 impressed that film’s producers, two of whom went on to produce The Greasy Strangler. and  also served as executive producers on the film.
  • The movie was supported and partly financed by the venerable British Film Institute.
  • This was 72-year-old actor and former punk-club owner Michael St. Michaels’ first leading role—unless you count his film debut in 1987s direct-to-VHS The Video Dead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Big Ronnie’s big prosthetic, flapping in the car wash blower’s breeze.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disco spotlight; pig-nosed stranglee; “hootie tootie disco cutie”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gross, greasy and bizarre, ‘s debut feature is the closest thing you’ll see to a modern Trash Trilogy film, filtered through the fashionable surreal comedy sensibilities of Tim and Eric or . Strangler is more than the sum of those influences, however: it is its own little world where a lisping man with a pig snout can walk around town without raising an eyebrow, and a spotlight might suddenly appear on an alley wall for a character to do a spontaneous dance number. The fat-to-nutrient content is too out-of-whack for this to count as healthy entertainment, but it’s fine as a guilty pleasure treat. It’s too big, bold and weird to be ignored; it’s not 2016’s best movie, or even the year’s best weird movie, but it is this season’s most insistently in-your-face assault on taste and reality.


Short clip from The Greasy Strangler

COMMENTS: “Let’s get greasy!” shouted the producers from the Continue reading 262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

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)

259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

AKA Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane

“Kane said quietly, ‘Why won’t you go to the moon?’

‘Why do camels have humps and cobras none? Good Christ, man, don’t ask the heart for reasons! Reasons are dangerous!'”

–William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (novel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders

PLOT: Col. Kane, a U.S. Marines psychiatrist, is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing delusional military officers who are suspected malingerers. There, he bonds with Cutshaw, a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, with whom he engages in passionate dialogues about the existence of God. One night, Cutshaw breaks out of the compound and heads for a bar frequented by a rough motorcycle gang; Kane follows.

Still from The Ninth Configuration (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”) adapted the screenplay from his own 1978 novel, which was itself a reworking of a 1966 novel (“Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane”) with which he had been dissatisfied. This was his directorial debut (in a career that reached three films with 2016’s Legion).
  • Blatty originally wrote a “Kane” screenplay that he hoped would be filmed by in the early Seventies, but they could not find a studio willing to produce it. Blatty and Friedkin collaborated on The Exorcist (1973) instead.
  • Although the script made the rounds in Hollywood for years, no studio would back The Ninth Configuration. Blatty eventually funded the film half with his own money and half with a donation from Pepsico, who were willing to provide funds for complicated international tax reasons so long as the film was shot entirely in Hungary.
  • Blatty has fiddled with the editing through the years, deleting and restoring scenes, so that cuts run anywhere from 99 minutes to 140 minutes.
  • According to Blatty, The Ninth Configuration‘s Cutshaw is the same character as the astronaut who attended the dinner party in The Exorcist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it possibly be besides the crucifixion on the moon?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lunar Calvary; lunatic with a jet-pack; dog Hamlet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, invoking a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.


Clip from The Ninth Configuration

COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without Continue reading 259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)