Tag Archives: Keith Carradine

LIST CANDIDATE: IDAHO TRANSFER (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand

PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.

Still from Idaho Transfer (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.

COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?

With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.

At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.

“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)

Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):

LIST CANDIDATE: CHARMS (1973)

AKA Grassland, Hex, The Shrieking

DIRECTED BY: Leo Garen

FEATURING: , , Gary Busey, Christina Raines (as Tina Herazo), Hilarie Thompson, Robert Walker Jr., Dan Haggerty, Doria Cook, Mike Combs

PLOT: A group of WWI veterans motorcycling through the plains of Nebraska encounter two sisters, daughters of a Native-American shaman. When the antics of the gang get a bit rowdy, one of the sisters hexes the group and the members die in strange ways.

Hex4

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: See the “Comments” for the argument… but if the ad campaigns below (click to enlarge) don’t convince you, then you’re obviously not into Weird Hippie Westerns.

grassland hex


COMMENTS: Despite the plot description, Charms is not quite the undiscovered horror gem that some might hope for.  In fact, it pretty much defies any sort of expectation that one would take from its logline—which, considering the history of this film, is quite fitting. This movie has gone through several title changes. Originally called Grassland (it had a short debut under that title), it was retitled Hex and got a second brief release in the U.S. and in Europe under that new name. Then it was pulled from release and shelved by its studio, 20th Century Fox, and went relatively unseen until the early 90s, when it was released on VHS and LaserDisc under the title The Shrieking. It turns up on DVD in 2006 under its current moniker.

The screenplay was originally written in the 1960s by Doran William Cannon (Skidoo, Brewster McCloud), who sold it to Leo Garen, an off-Broadway theater director who moved into film and television. (Garen was an associate producer of Norman Mailer’s 1970 experiment Maidstone, and later co-wrote 1986’s Band of the Hand). Garen went through several drafts with screenwriters Vernon Zimmerman (Fade to Black, Unholy Rollers) and Steve Katz (“The A-Team”); Garen and Katz were eventually credited with the screenplay while Cannon and Zimmerman got story credit.

That’s quite a mish-mash, and the film certainly shows signs of too many cooks in the kitchen… but ultimately, its largest flaw (and also its charm, get it?) is that it’s a product of its time, when artistic amalgamations were encouraged to bring in the Youth Audience (who made Easy Rider and its ilk box-office successes). And while Charms is not a great film, it can certainly be argued that it is a weird one.

Still from CharmsAt first the film appears to be a period Western when the two sisters Oriole (Herazo) and Acacia (Thompson) are seen loading up a wagon to pick up supplies from the nearest town. When they see a group of motorcyclists crossing the prairie, it’s a dissociation from expectations that this will be a typical Western, which is topped by another dissociation that takes place at the climax of the film. The tone varies so much from comedy (the gang’s adventure in town, involving racing a local with a very early precursor to the ‘hot rod’) to terror (the hexing) that it can’t really be said to be a horror film. It’s a rather laid back (seriously—there’s not a lot of action here, and an extended sequence where one of the sisters introduces the bikers to “loco weed”) story of two groups of characters: a group of WW1 “young veterans” tooling around looking for kicks (the Easy Rider influence) and of two sisters with mystic powers, one light and the other dark.

Ultimately this melding of European artistic sensibility with a straightforward commercial premise doesn’t quite work as well as one would hope, as borne out by Fox not really knowing what the hell they paid for and shelving the film after two brief releases didn’t work out. But there are some tasty elements present, including the cast… anything featuring Carradine, Glenn and Busey as bikers at the start of their careers is definitely worth a look. The cinematography by Charles Rosher (3 Women) is also noteworthy and provides some beautifully haunting moments.

The budget release DVD can probably still be found on auction sites like eBay,  and the film can be viewed via Amazon Instant Video.

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973)

AKA Emperor Of The North

DIRECTED BY: Robert Aldrich

FEATURING: Ernest Borgnine, ,

PLOT: A maniac conductor sadistically stalks hobos along his Depression era freight, smashing their skulls with a club hammer when they try to ride the rails.  NO ONE rides his Number 19 train for free.  Evil incarnate, he exists only to hunt men.

Still from Emperor of the North Pole (1973)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Emperor Of The North Pole may not have the requisite look, feel, or scary music, but it is very much a horror movie.  Instead of the supernatural, the monsters are men.  The killer is no cloaked slasher striking by night, but a crazy-eyed, obsessed railroad man, insane with twisted rage, filled with frothing blood lust, armed with cruel and unusual instruments of punishment.  He gets his kicks by smashing in skulls and he strikes in broad daylight unrestrained, with complete impunity.  This incongruency—a horrifying film that masquerades as a suspense drama by telling an unconventional, real-world story—makes for an unusual viewing experience.  Add larger-than-life archetypal characters; bizarre, colorful monologues; and a deceptively simple plot about a symbolic evil vs. slightly-less-evil struggle, and the result is a riveting, weird movie.

COMMENTS:  Pastoral Oregon locations set an illusory bucolic tone in the opening shots of Emperor Of The North Pole as a steam locomotive winds its way through rural woodlands.  This is Union Pacific’s Number 19 freight, and it has a madman on board.

It is 1933, the depths of the Great Depression, and 1/4 of Americans are unemployed.  Many of them are literally starving to death.  A mobile army of homeless men roams the country looking for temporary work, stealing rides on the rails.  They are nomads who live by no law but their own, and the Railroad Man is dedicated to their destruction.  On the Portland route, that man is Shack (Borgnine), a ruthless conductor who enforces the “paying passengers only” rule with deadly reverence.

Railroads don’t like it when you stow away on board or trespass on their tracks.  Today they employ a battalion of federally licensed, armed railroad detectives to catch you, and these men behave like real bastards when they do.  But in 1933 even the railroads were hard up.  His actions condoned by underfunded, undermanned, corrupt law enforcement, Shack takes the job of controller, making sure that no one rides for free.  Drawing from his own sadistic black book of dirty tricks he patrols his train like a monstrous gargoyle, perpetually on the lookout for bums.

Relentless and Argus-eyed, Shack is a real-life Terminator: he can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be bargained with, he has no mercy to appeal to, he is hard to kill, and he will never, ever stop.  Shack has a savage arsenal of bizarre, creepy weapons at his disposal, but his favorite is the engineer’s heavy, double-headed club mallet.

When Shack, creeping along the speeding 19’s boxcar catwalk, finds a tramp riding on the frame of a hopper car, he sneaks up on the hapless man.  The bum, enjoying a sandwich, is blissfully unaware of the danger.  With a fell swoop of the club hammer, Shack smashes the man’s skull.  His head laid open, dangling between cars, the hobo begs for his life before being sucked under.  In a spectacular, graphic sequence the rail cars’ sharp under-hangs ensnare the tramp and violently wad him up before the heavy wheels slice him in half like a biscuit.

For the Railroad Man, his pension and gold watch are at stake.  For the hobo, it is a matter of survival.  But for both, there is also pride.  Shack is determined the hobos not see him as a free ride.  He is humiliated and taunted when the hobo community marginalizes him by defying his rules.

The hobos hate Shack, but they also want to prove themselves to each other.  To be a master hobo, a skilled man of the road who can survive in style and avoid arrest, is to become “Emperor of the North Pole,” king of the tracks.  The term is cynically self-deprecating.  Penniless, desperate, with no past, no future, no clout and nobody to vouch for them, the hobos perceive that they lead a futile, near meaningless, existence.  Anybody presiding over the North Pole would be emperor of a worthless desert.

In this context, the alpha male tramp of the West Coast hobo “jungle” camps is the admired A-Number One (Marvin).  A#1 is determined to prove himself Emperor Of The North Pole by successfully riding notorious Shack’s Number 19 all the way to Portland.  He is dogged by a swaggering, inept, tag-along, upstart named “Cigaret” (Carradine).  Using numerous tactics to sneak aboard and avoid detection on the 19, A#1 is caught between Shack’s criminal tactics and Cigraret’s malicious recklessness. Despite A#1’s paternal attempts to mentor him, Cigaret continuously betrays A#1 out of a sense of misguided competition.

In trying to derail Shack, A#1 and Cigaret nearly derail the entire train.  To distract and misdirect Shack, A#1 and Cigaret do their best to compromise and professionally ruin him with a series of sidetracking stunts.  But the stunts are not mere jokes.  They are heavy, malicious felonies which endanger the hobos, other trains, and entire crews with imminent bloody death.

While the ‘bo’s believe Shack deserves killin’, their actions justify Shack’s murderous rampage as well.  Like a runaway train, the perverse feud escalates beyond the boundaries of any sensible limits.  The locomotive steams and roars.  The whistle shrieks.  The pistons churn.  The black smoke streams into the sky.  The trio of enraged men highball over the steel rails.  Their murderous plots against each other descend into a maelstrom of frothy, blood-soaked madness.  As they barrel along among the swaying cars of the speeding train, the inflamed trio hurtles toward an ultimate gladiatorial showdown to determine who will be Emperor Of The North Pole.

Writer Christopher Knopf’s deceptively minimalist script was tailor made for Robert Aldrich’s now familiar themes: men in their primal state squaring off against each other, the ultimate confrontation, man against environment, life as arena, life as a game, men and machines.  The characters are simplistic and archetypal, and the space they occupy, like a gladiatorial ring, is very small: the area enclosed by two rails.  The universality of these simple building blocks enabled Knopf to forge an engrossing adventure to which audiences can easily relate.

Knopf considered the political tempo of the times, the populist social attitudes of the downtrodden, the quest for survival, the attitudes of the elites; i.e. the fabric of society and its rules.  He rendered these factors down into a raw story about a conductor who won’t have hobos on his train and the two hobos bent on defying him.  The result is powerful and directly accessible without being dumbed down.

Every shot is carefully assembled as if it will be a still photo submitted for exhibit.  Each frame showing a character is an artistic portrait.  The selection of shots and the way they are edited is expressive and precise.  Additionally, Aldrich used a fine grain film stock which reveals very sharp detail.  The resulting visual impact dramatically emphasizes the action.  This gives everything about the film a larger than life feel, and reinforces the conceit of archetypal characters in an archetypal situation.

Emperor Of The North Pole was re-released on DVD in 2006.  The DVD reflects that the original film print was carefully preserved.  The re-release has dazzling sharp picture quality.

Emperor Of The North Pole was inspired by Jack London’s On The Road and From Coast To Coast. It was shot along the Oregon Pacific and Eastern short line railroad near Cottage Grove, where Stand By Me (1986) was filmed in 1985.  Viewers who see both will recognize the distinctive countryside.  Stand By Me was the last of several motion pictures to be filmed on these tracks.  The first, in 1926, the was The General, Buster Keaton’s famous period piece about a Civil War locomotive chase.

Surviving for over 90 years, the Oregon Pacific and Eastern was constructed in 1901 to bridge Cottage Grove southeast to the Bohemia mining district.  The last train ran the line in the mid 1990s.

The steam locomotive and trains used in the filming of Emperor Of The North Pole were part of the actual working stock of the railroad, still in use in the the 1970’s.  Shack’s Number 19 locomotive featured in the movie is a 1915 Baldwin 2-8-2.  It pulled excursion trains well into the ’70’s along the Oregon Pacific and Eastern (pictured below).


Old #19, Oregon Pacific and Eastern – photograph by John Goldie

Number 19 still runs today, pulling the “Blue Goose” excursion train on the Yreka Western Railroad between Yreka and Montague, California.

The terms “hobos,” “tramps,” and “bums” have been used interchangeably in this recommendation for purposes of convenience.  This is actually not correct usage, as the names have distinctly different meanings.  Here is the rule for remembering them: a bum sits and loafs, a tramp loafs and keeps moving, but a hobo works and moves, and he is clean.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an unusual, uncompromising and much underrated film.”–Film 4

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: WINTER OF FROZEN DREAMS (2009)

DIRECTED BY:  Eric Mandelbaum

FEATURING: Thora Birch, , Brendan Sexton III, Leo Fitzpatrick, Dean Winters

PLOT: An unambitious young man balances uneasy alliances with the authorities and his psychopathic girlfriend when she involves him in a meretricious murder case.

Still from Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Non linear story telling, oddball characters and incomprehensible motivations combine to weave a tapestry of weirdness in this contemporary film noir mystery.

COMMENTS:  Some movies don’t have to be garishly bizarre to be weird.  Winter of Frozen Dreams employs a soft, almost poetic production style to tell a tawdry tale of twisted topics set down as causally as if the story were an episode of the Donna Reed Show.  The nonlinear plot is partially presented through the flashbacks and subjective impressions of a cast of oddball, unsavory characters whose disorganized, irrational lives inexplicably intersect in a convoluted morass of lies, depravity, deceit and murder.

Set in 1977 Madison, Wisconsin, Winter of Frozen Dreams relates the events of the notorious Hoffman murder case.  On Christmas day, Gerald Davies walked into the police department and announced that he had helped his girlfriend dispose of a bloodied, battered corpse at the Blackhawk Ski jump park near Middleton.  Police accompanied him to retrieve the body of Harry Berge and a series of perplexing events began to unfold that led to the arrest of Barbara Hoffman.  The case drew a great deal of attention because it was the first televised murder trial in the state.

Of even greater interest to the public was the fact that the accused was a beautiful girl with an IQ over 140 who led a triple life.  In addition to being a straight ‘A’ biochemistry student at the University of Wisconsin, Barbara Hoffman was a psychopathic whore and Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: WINTER OF FROZEN DREAMS (2009)