Tag Archives: Malcolm McDowell

CAPSULE: CALIGULA (1979)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione

FEATURING: , , , Teresa Ann Savoy,

PLOT: Caligula becomes the Emperor of Rome and lots of depravity happens; any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely accidental.

Still from Caligula (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: On paper, Caligula sounds like a sure bet. There are many bad movies that get honored here, and we even have a tag called “.” Caligula could theoretically qualify for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made by that standard. Except that “bad” doesn’t describe Caligula so much as stupid. Nothing more need be said about this movie but “stupid.” Rocks are too smart to watch Caligula.

COMMENTS: There is at least a hefty essay and maybe a book to be written about the story of how Caligula got made, although perhaps it would be more correct to say it got “executed.” The drama involved in the production is a thousand times more entertaining than anything that ended up on film. Pretty much everybody involved locked horns and stormed off the set to sue each other. Various creative forces within the production struggled to make it a historic Shakespearian opera, a cheap exploitation flick, a softcore porn epic, and a hardcore snuff porn transgression; the result was best summed up when one reviewer called it “a boondoggle of landmark proportions.”

Some cultural context is helpful: the 1970s were an era when movies like Deep Throat had brought big-screen porn into a relatively acceptable light, and filmmakers were getting more daring in testing the boundaries of taste. Caligula pisses on the very idea of taste, and if you dare to abuse your intellect by watching it, you will encounter several scenes where it literally does just that. Welcome to the Horny Roman Empire, with Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) romping with Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), which seems to be harmless enough erotica until you learn they’re brother and sister. His uncle Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole), summons him to discuss politics and witness his depraved orgies. Caligula assassinates Tiberius and assumes the throne, breaking all hell loose as he sinks into depravity. Caligula promotes Drusilla as his equal, convicts Marco (Guido Mannari) of treason in a kangaroo court and offs him, and marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren) because he can’t legally marry his sister. Drusilla dies, Caesonia gets pregnant, Caligula wars with the Roman senate and declares himself a god, Caligula shows off his horse, the new senator Chaerea plots to assassinate Caligula and succeeds, and the movie ends, merciful heavens be praised.

In the midst, background, foreground, and everyground of these shenanigans, naked people cavort in every depiction of hedonistic excess possible. It kind of plays out like a film with a bigger budget but fewer ideas and not a trace of a sense of humor. In fact, Malcolm McDowell’s presence in this film invites you to compare it to a signature scene of A Clockwork Orange; it’s exactly the kind of “ultraviolence” film the character Alex would be forced to watch during his brainwashing sessions. There’s rape, torture, bestiality, necrophilia, mutant people with four legs and butts on their bellies, silly over-the-top executions and mutilations, urination, defecation, and basically every perversion you could search for on the Internet. Most of this just flies by with no context or reason to exist. Sometimes the camera just gets bored and focuses on somebody’s crotch, while irrelevant actors screech their dialog in hopes of getting it’s attention. Nobody in this movie even gave a thin damn about historical accuracy. The sets are festooned with anachronisms such as a styrofoam hat shaped like a penis, worn by an extra just casually passing through the set while apparently waiting for a taxi.

When it comes to erotic arthouse films, Caligula fails by every definition. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover does a superior job of being a weird epic with erotic scenes, for just one example. There’s a dozen or so artsploitation films already in line on this site ahead of Caligula, and there’s only so many we need. In terms of history, just take into account that even the writings we have of the real life of Caligula (mostly Suetonius, writing 80 years after the emperor’s death) are suspected of fudging the facts in the interest of political propaganda. In terms of pure kinky titillation, go watch The Story of O or Secretary or Belle De Jour instead. Don’t look for steamy thrills in Caligula, because nobody, not even serial killers apprehended with a freezer full of body parts, is this depraved.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… as with a lot of bad would-be art, this cinematic oddity holds a truly bizarre fascination…”–Michale Dequina, The Movie Report (1999 revival)

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: G. J. Echternkamp

FEATURING: Manu Bennett, Marci Miller, Yancy Butler,

PLOT: In a dystopian future, drivers compete in a cross-country race where the competitors score points for speed and vehicular homicide.

Still from Death Race 2050 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being the fifth film to bear the Death Race marque, the 2050 incarnation is a pretty straightforward race picture, with some absurd gore and strident satire glommed on for extra measure.

COMMENTS: The title card identifies this movie properly as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, and when you get to be 90 years old and won an Oscar just for the sheer volume of your output, then you’re damned right you get to throw your name up there. But now that he’s put himself front and center, it’s important to remember that a lot of Roger Corman movies are bad. When we think of filmmakers like , James Cameron, or Ron Howard getting their start in Corman’s low-budget film factory, the context is that they are all talented filmmakers who overcame humble origins. Death Race 2050 does not manage to outshine its pedigree, whether that be the Corman exploitation mill, the shadow of the original Death Race 2000, or the many films from which it liberally borrows. In that sense, it’s a fitting addition to the Corman canon.

Allegedly, Corman instigated the idea after a journalist suggested that his original Death Race had much in common with The Hunger Games. Evidently, he opted to solidify the connection by carrying over as many elements of The Hunger Games as he could legitimately steal, from the bread-and-circuses atmosphere to the preening chief executive to the destitute-man’s Stanley Tucci who emcees the whole affair. But it owes just as much to the rock-stupid future depicted in Idiocracy, to say nothing of the original film, whose beats are carefully replicated here.

Ostensibly the tale of a fallen America’s favorite bloodsport, Death Race 2050 pits five cars against each other in a race across a country that is largely free of people, presumably because they all remain indoors to enjoy the race from their squalid-yet-VR-enabled homes. Given how many of the remaining citizens wind up dead at the hands of the racers, it’s hard to tell whether reality TV is the ultimate killer, or the only thing keeping our descendants alive.

As for the racers themselves, one is a robot car susceptible to brain damage, while two are stereotypes (a black nationalist rap star whose hit song consists almost entirely of the poetic lyrics, “Death Death Kill Kill”, and a fundamentalist Christian televangelist who proudly builds her pulpit on terrorism). That leaves two for our primary showdown: Jed Perfectus, the probably-gay prima donna with a chip on his shoulder who struts around practically naked (he has a spectacular chin, but beyond that is not exactly a flawless specimen), and Frankenstein, the world-weary champion who is pretty much annoyed with everyone. Overseeing all of this is Malcolm McDowell, honing his accumulated phoning-it-in skills with a barely-trying American accent and a floppy hairdo that might remind viewers of another arrogant leader who cons the public and suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

The writers want to have fun with the rampant commercialism that has destroyed the country (the best such joke is this wonderful location card: “Washington, D.C. [formerly Dubai]”), but the humor is paper-thin. For every joke that carries a little weight if you stop to think about it (i.e. the aerosol cheese that’s also a mood stabilizer), twice as many are simplistic (the new American flag replaces the stars with dollar signs), depraved (a passenger literally has sex with the robot car), or low-hanging (fans drink paint-can-sized beverages labeled “Zoda!”). The film is aware of its limitations (a conversation between two women takes place in “The Bechdel Lounge”) but helpless to overcome them. Characters switch sides just because, abandon long-held beliefs just because, and generally do whatever is required to get them to the next jokey part of the country.

But you’re not really watching Death Race 2050 for its Thurberian wit, so who cares as long as there’s some thrills in this Death Race? Which turns out to be an even bigger problem: no one believes for a minute that these cars are going faster than 30 mph, even fewer will imagine that these actors got anywhere near the steering wheel, and most of the carnage consists of bloody entrails being hurled at windshields. When you aim to combine satire and action, and don’t really score on either count, you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment.

Death Race 2050 wants to be a few different movies, but doesn’t really score at any one of them. As a result, it’s never actively bad, but not particularly good, which makes it very disposable as entertainment. Fortunately, there are four other Death Race films you can try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Death Race 2050 is grating and insane … Even more than the original, this flick is a garish cartoon and as such, it will likely isolate audiences looking for the humorless thrills of the previous Death Race series or those just looking for a straight action flick. No, this incarnation of Death Race feels like a smutty app from Hell, rather than a conventional genre film.” — Chris Alexander, ComingSoon.net

253. IF…. (1968)

“What child has ever been silly enough to ask, when Cinderella’s pumpkin turns into a golden coach, where reality ends and fantasy begins?”–Lindsay Anderson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Wood, Richard Warwick, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Christine Noonan

PLOT: Mick Travis is a rebellious teenage boy at a British boarding school. Because of “general attitude,” he and two friends are persecuted and beaten by the “whips,” older students given privileges to enforce discipline. During military exercises, Mick and his friends discover a cache of automatic weapons and make plans to disrupt the school’s Founders’s Day celebration.

Still from If.... (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • In England if…. was controversial due to its unflattering portrayal of English boarding schools (particularly, one suspects, of the depiction of pervasive homosexuality) and, by extension, of English traditions in general. When David Sherwin and John Howlett brought their original screenplay to one producer, he called it “the most evil and perverted script he’s ever read.”
  • The film was inspired by ‘s 1933 Certified Weird anarchist screed Zéro de conduite, relocated from 1930s France to then-contemporary Britain.
  • if… was filmed mostly on location at Cheltenham College, director Lindsay Anderson’s alma mater. Many of the boys who appear in smaller roles were students there at the time. A doctored script, missing the final scenes, was given to the college, since the school never would have granted permission to shoot if they had known if…’s climax beforehand.
  • This was Malcolm McDowell’s film debut.
  • Look for portraits of famous revolutionaries and icons of rebellion like Che Guevara, Geronimo, Vladimir Lenin, James Dean and others hanging on the boys’s walls.
  • There is a legend that the film shifted from black and white to color because the producers ran out of money for color stock. Lindsay Anderson contradicted these rumors, saying that they decided to shoot the first chapel scene in black and white due to lighting considerations. He liked the effect so much that he inserted black and white scenes at random to disorient the viewer and to hint at the fantasy elements to come later.  Anderson insists there is no symbolic “code” or reasoning for why some scenes are monochrome and some in color.
  • Distributor Paramount was horrified by the film and certain it would bomb in Britain. They wanted to bury it, but at the last minute they needed a movie to screen in London to replace their current flop: Barbarella. if… went on to be a hit.
  • if…. won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, although in the commentary Malcolm McDowell recalls that he was told that the film actually came in third in the voting, but was chosen as a compromise because the jury could not break a deadlock between supporters of Costa-Gavras’s Z and Bo Widerberg’s Adalen 31.
  • Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell made three films together, in three different decades. In each of them McDowell plays a character named “Mick Travis,” although based on their varying personalities it’s unlikely that they are intended to be the same person. The other two “Mick Travis” films are 1973’s O Lucky Man! and 1982’s Britannia Hospital.
  • Anderson actually wrote a proper sequel for if…, which was to take place at a class reunion, which was unfilmed at the time of his death in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The final shootout, as a whole; it’s both a troubling massacre and an immensely satisfying revenge. Early posters of if… favored shots of star McDowell or the photogenic Girl; we prefer the brief image of a dowager who grabs a machine gun and pitches in for the defense of the school.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tiger mating ritual; chaplain in a drawer; granny with a machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Throughout most of its run time if… is a viciously realistic boarding school drama. But when the Headmaster sternly tells the boys “I take this seriously… very seriously indeed” after Mick shoots a chaplain and bayonets a teacher during the school’s campus war games, we suddenly realize the line between realism and fantasy has been thinner than we thought.


Original U.S. release trailer for if….

COMMENTS: if…‘s theme is the conflict between tradition and rebellion, age and youth, especially resonant concerns in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the firebrand film was fortuitously released a few months after the student riots in Paris. Structurally, ifContinue reading 253. IF…. (1968)

CAPSULE: BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Graham Crowden, Leonard Rossiter, Malcolm McDowell, Marsha Hunt

PLOT: The unions are picketing, mobs gather outside the hospital gates protesting the institution’s harboring of an African dictator, an investigative reporter is sneaking around posing as a window cleaner, and Professor Millar is continuing his secret experiments, all on the day Her Royal Highness is scheduled to grace Britannia Hospital with her presence.

Still from Britannia Hospital (1982)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Scattershot, though in  a pleasant way, Britannia Hospital is the least (and the least surreal) of Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell’s “Mick Travis” trilogy. It does end with an unexpected wowza of weirdness, however.

COMMENTS:The very first scene of Britannia Hospital sets Lindsay Anderson’s black and bitter tone. Picketers flag down an ambulance outside the hospital. “No admissions except by union dispensation,” croaks the protestor in a Cockney accent. The strikers check the back and find an old man gasping for air; the paramedic reads a newspaper while they check his paperwork before passing him through. Unfortunately, the old man gets inside the hospital just as the nurses are going on break. “You can’t leave that there,” says one supervisor of the soon-to-be corpse lying on the stretcher, but what are they going to do? They’re off the clock.

There are not many likable characters in Britannia Hospital. The hospital administrators are more concerned with serving a proper English breakfast to the private patients in their luxury suites than in healing the sick. The unions grind the institution to a halt over any perceived slight. The doctors pursue private research into Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. The protestors are looking for any excuse for a riot. Perhaps the closest thing to a sympathetic character here is Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), an investigative reporter planning to expose corruption in the hospital. (“MickTravis” was the name of the central character in the first two McDowell/Anderson collaborations, but he plays only a minor role in the ensemble cast here). Guess whether Travis gets a happy ending.

With the minor exception of a pair of royal protocol experts—a dwarf and a cross dresser—the arrogant and obsessed Professor Millar (Graham Crowden) is the strangest (and most fun) character in Britannia Hospital. His campy dialogue and reverence for “science!” make it seem like he’s stopped by on his way to the set of a Hammer Frankenstein picture to deliver his lines. His dastardly machinations even provoke an outrageous gore sequence, which further makes it seem like his character is on loan from a completely different movie. As for his final (and totally out-of-character) speech—the blank faces of the assembly reflect our own experience. We don’t know what to make of this “new beginning” he prophesies, or how in the world it is supposed to fit into the social satire that had been the movie’s currency up until this point.

I call the movie a satire because it mocks human vice, but Anderson’s outlook in Britannia Hospital is too bleak and hopeless to properly be described as satire. Satire implies a moral or political point of view; satire takes sides. The vision here is misanthropic and hopeless. The privileged upper classes are an easy target (the hospital harbors a cannibal, after all, just because he pays for a private suite). But we wouldn’t root for the lower classes, either. The union bosses are corrupt, hypocritical, and easily bribed. The mobs of protestors are willing to tear the innocent limb from limb along with the wicked. If they storm the hospital and overthrow the authorities, we are certain that the proletariat’s leaders will be no more virtuous than the current administration. The scorched earth tactics of both sides are tearing apart the hospital. It’s a naked power struggle: money on one side, numbers on the other. There are no good guys.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another surreal Lindsay Anderson piece that takes many wild forays and yet still manages to come together as a whole in the end. This is as good, as clever, and as pointed as any of his better known stuff.”–Richard Winters, Scopophila (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Leo,” who said it “seems a bit odd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANTIVIRAL (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Brandon Cronenberg

FEATURING: Caleb Landry Jones, , Joe Pingue,

PLOT: Syd is in the business of supplying fans who pay good money to be infected with a herpes simplex virus extracted from their favorite celebrities, but when he samples the blood of the world’s hottest model, he unwittingly injects himself with a fatal virus.

Still from Antiviral (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Doomed protagonists peering into mysteries they’d be better off not finding the answers to, painful hallucinatory bodily transformations, beautiful women with hidden gynecological deformities: Anitviral‘s got that genuine Cronenberg phenotype. Brandon, the son of , ensures the family’s weird gene will live on.

COMMENTS: Antiviral is simultaneously science fiction, a satire of contemporary celebrity culture, a psychological thriller, and a body-horror fever dream. Trying to juggle that many balls takes the kind of hubris that only a first-time director can summon. Antiviral is generally up to the task, although it does start to drag as it runs its course; but its strange concepts and its chilly style should be enough to keep you hooked to the end. Antiviral imagines a world of the near future where celebrity obsession has become literally pathological: people pay top dollar to achieve “biological communion” with beautiful people by being infected with their personal diseases. This highly profitable market naturally invites corruption, including viral piracy by unscrupulous bug mules willing to serve as human incubators. To protect their intellectual property, pathogen peddlers have derived a bizarre copyrighting system that somehow uses facial imagining technology to give unique, distorted human features to each individual virus. The pop-microbe trade isn’t even the sickest way this society exploits susperstars’ cell structure; I won’t spoil that nauseating revelation. Caleb Landry Jones plays Syd, a top Lucas Corporation viral technician who’s wan-looking even when he’s healthy; he has few facial expressions, but seems like he was cast for his sickliness. On the other end of the spectrum is luminous Sarah Gadon (who, with roles in A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and now this is fast becoming the Cronenbergs’ go-to actress), the “more than perfect, more than human” supermodel whose cold sores are the Lucas Corporation’s top sellers. When Syd inadvertently contracts a fatal infection—one which, thankfully for the audience, includes inducing traumatic Cronenbergian hallucinations as a major side-effect—the race is on to find an antidote. The young viral entrepreneur will find out how deep the underground bio-celebrity trade goes, and how far the pathologists who work there are willing to go to keep their business model healthy. The future created in Antiviral is eerie and repellant. Like one of the movie’s copyrightable virus visages, which look like smartphone snapshots that have been run through a cheap face warping app, the culture here is distorted but recognizable. Cronenberg’s constant white-on-white color scheme can be heavy handed at times, but it generally reinforces the movie’s tone: artificial, otherworldly, and coldly antiseptic. While Antiviral runs out of steam before it reaches classic status, there are moments in the film that will make you both physically and morally ill. As a debut, it’s a promising start. Another generation of Cronenbergs is a savory prospect, and while not quite a masterpiece, Antiviral is a promising indicator of unsettling things to come from Brandon.

Antiviral‘s central premise—that people would willingly infect themselves with the flu, or herpes, just so they could feel closer to beautiful strangers—is too absurd to be believed, a satirical exaggeration. Then again, within our society exists the rare but real subculture of bugchasers. God help us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If weirdness was all that mattered… ‘Antiviral’ would be a must-see.”–Matt Pais, Redeye (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SILENT HILL: REVELATION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Michael J. Bassett

FEATURING: Adelaide Clemens, Sean Bean, Kit Harington, Malcolm McDowell

PLOT: Six years after the events of the original Silent Hill, Sharon (now living under the alias “Heather”) returns to the mysterious ghost town to rescue her abducted father and face ancient evils left over from the last movie.

Still from Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Christophe Gans’ original Silent Hill adaptation was a combination of campy confusion and apocalyptic atmosphere that hit all the right nightmare notes and was strange enough to worm its way onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. Six years later, with a journeyman director at the helm and no new ideas to bring to the table other than a gimmicky 3D presentation, the novelty has abandoned the Silent Hill universe, at least in its cinematic incarnation. We’re left with characters we can barely bring ourselves to care about rambling through a progression of jump-scare set pieces.

COMMENTS: Some critics are complaining that Silent Hill: Revelation is “baffling,” incomprehensible” and “makes no sense.” They’re analyzing the issue backwards: it’s actually the parts of the movie that you can make heads or tails of that suck. Basically, this is the old story about a girl who’s having hallucinations, flashbacks or dreams inside of dreams every five minutes because she and her father are on the run from a cult imprisoned in an old mining town by a godlike spirit who is actually her evil twin. When her father gets kidnapped by the cult she must journey to the forbidden town so that a crazy old hag can warn her not to go inside to retrieve the other half of the Seal of Megatron (I swear that’s what it sounded like) from a crazy old coot (a slumming Malcolm McDowell). Seal of Megatron in hand, she’s now free to go to the abandoned amusement park so she can get on the carousel and hug her evil half to death before getting a prime seat to watch another character face off against another boss to defeat another ultimate evil. I suspect that this plot actually makes sense to someone who has played all the video games and performed a scene-by-scene analysis of the first movie, but even if you have a copies of all four Silent Hill Official Strategy Guides on your bookshelf and understand Pyramid Head’s nuanced role in this peculiar mythos, the movie has deeper problems than a confusing plot. Primary among these is the fact that Revelation never generates a real sense of danger for Heather/Sharon; the first third of the movie is filled with so many false scares and dream sequences that we quickly become immune to any threat to the girl’s safety. Her adversaries could easily kill her any time they want to, but simply need to lure her to the inner sanctum for the final showdown, which makes her passage through a world of grasping nightmare monsters an arbitrary journey. Given that lack of tension, other problems, like the risible, deadpan dialogue and the unnecessary and underdeveloped love interest fall by the wayside. A set of dual climaxes that simultaneously make you mutter “huh?” and “is that all there is?” cap off an uninspiring effort. Ho-hum 3D effects include severed fingers floating directly at the audience in slow motion; the movie will not suffer a bit on TV or computer screens from flattening the image. It’s not all bad; the movie does at least look like Silent Hill. The settings are atmospheric, if often clichéd (spooky evil clowns, anyone?). Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, who looks uncannily like Carey Mulligan’s younger sister, is appealing, and it’s always nice to see McDowell hamming it up—he seems to have entered that stage in his career where he’ll take any old role (Suck, Zombex, Suing the Devil) just because he loves working and is no longer afraid to look ridiculous. The main appeal is seeing the creepy Silent Hill monsters brought to life. Pyramid Head, a monster who is exactly what his name says he is, is a boogeyman who seems like he shouldn’t work, and yet he is almost inexplicably scary and cool. The busty faceless zombie nurses, also returning from the original movie, add an element of camp but remain frightening as they flail about blindly with scalpels. Revelation adds an arachnid who uses embalmed heads as eyes to the franchise’s effectively weird bestiary. Although Silent Hill: Revelation is nowhere in the neighborhood of a good movie, dedicated horror fans (and particularly dedicated fans of this franchise) will be able to wring a few drops of bloody entertainment from it.

At this writing Silent Hill: Revelation has an abysmal 5% positive critical rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but scores a respectable 6.7 rating on IMDB. This suggests that the film hit a sweet spot for franchise fans—but only for them. Although a few reviewers have prematurely proclaimed that this disaster will effectively kill off any burgeoning Silent Hill movie franchise, Revelation did manage to earn back almost half its budget in its opening week, despite hurricane Sandy shutting down East Coast theaters. It will almost certainly turn a profit, so we could see more of Pyramid Head in coming years.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“British helmer Bassett… shows no affinity for the grotesquely beautiful surrealism that distinguished the vidgame series and earlier feature.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUCK [2009]

DIRECTED BY: Rob Stefaniuk

FEATURING: Rob Stefaniuk, Jessica Pare, Malcolm McDowell, Dave Foley, Alice Cooper

PLOT: A struggling Canadian rock band finds sudden success when their female

Still from Suck (2009)

bassist becomes a vampire.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a campy, tongue-in-cheek music movie with a horror/comedy flavor, but doesn’t do much we haven’t seen before.  It draws from other films and music videos to create a light parody of the music industry that’s enjoyable but ultimately forgettable.

COMMENTS:  The plot of Suck is oddly (and I assume unintentionally) reminiscent of Zombie Strippers: both feature a group of performers who willingly become a monstrous entity in order to boost their own popularity, and then climatically reap the consequences of their selfishness.  It gives a satirical bent to the overdone “fledgling musical group hits the big time but get more than they bargained for” premise, substituting blood addiction for drug addiction and topically tapping into society’s sudden Twilight-fueled obsession with vampires.  The concept of vampirism is handled in a very matter-of-fact way, resulting in a lot of unexpected jokes and straightforward humor.

Writer/director Rob Stefaniuk stars as Joey, the lead singer of “The Winners”, playing the straight man surrounded by ridiculous figures for most of the film.  Jessica Pare holds her own as the only female lead, funny and sexy as the hot bassist Jennifer, while Malcolm McDowell (always ready to bring the camp) is awesomely over-the-top as vampire hunter “Eddie” Van Helsing.  Appearances from an impressive bevy of old timer rock stars lend Suck an air of credibility as a rumination on modern-day rock and roll.  Iggy Pop is a wise rocker-turned-recording engineer, Alice Cooper is a creepy mind-reader who spouts unwanted advice, Henry Rollins is a goofy rock DJ, and Moby is a meat-loving frontman.  The highlight for any Kids in the Hall fan will of course be Dave Foley’s few scenes as the Winners’ incompetent manager, delivering the film’s best deadpan lines.

Suck incorporates a lot of different visual techniques that give it more variety than one might expect of a low-budget horror-comedy.  The use of stop-motion miniatures and blood-stained maps for transitions were a neat touch, and the frenetic cuts and dramatic lighting during many of the vampire-centric scenes cleverly reference contemporary music videos.  The music itself is catchy and fun, but doesn’t do much to set itself apart from any generic indie rock band’s output.  It’s not a true musical, saving most of its songs for stage performances except for one unexpected impromptu goth music video set at a vampire’s really pale party.

As a movie, this sits somewhere in the middle of funny and boring, smart and stupid, bold and underachieving, rocker and poser.  It’s got a good concept that blends several genres, but isn’t as effective as it could have been.  It needed to be funnier, scarier, more rockin’, or all three.  As it stands, it’s a cute film with some really enjoyable comedic bits and a few great performances, but not nearly humorous or weird enough to be memorably entertaining.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…Stefaniuk bites off more than he can chew in this star-studded rock ‘n’ roll fantasy vampire flick. Juggling conventions, skewering clichés and referencing genre cues, Stefaniuk packs the film with so many insider jokes that what could have been a wild ride simply isn’t.”–Barbara Goslawski, Box Office Magazine (festival screening)

55. O LUCKY MAN! (1973)

“Lindsay… was never into realism.  He wanted it real, but not realistic.”–Malcolm McDowell

O Lucky Man! is a film about the real world.  I think that everything in it is recognizable to people who look around with open eyes and can see the kind of world we’re living in.  But of course it makes it’s comment through comedy and through satire, because I think the world today is too complex and too mad and too bad for one to be able to make a straight, serious comment.”–Lindsay Anderson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Lindsay Anderson

FEATURING: Malcolm McDowell, , , Arthur Lowe, Alan Price, Lindsay Anderson

PLOT: Mick Travis is an eager, ambitious trainee at a coffee company who gets a big break when the firm’s top salesman in the Northeast territory goes missing under mysterious circumstances and he’s picked to replace him.   With his engaging smile and can-do attitude, his career begins promisingly, but soon a sting of unfortunate coincidences befall him.  A plague of strange events drive him across the 1970s English landscape, as he is mistaken for a spy, volunteers for medical experiments, falls in with a touring rock band, becomes the personal assistant of a ruthless capitalist, goes to prison, and works at a soup kitchen.

Still from O Lucky Man! (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • McDowell is Mick Travis in this film.  He played a character of the same name in three of director Lindsay Anderson’s films, each completed in a different decade: If… (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973), and Britannia Hospital (1982).  Other than sharing the same name, there is no evidence that Mick Travis is intended to be the same character at different stages of life.
  • McDowell came up with the core idea for the script, drawing on his own pre-fame experiences as a coffee salesman.  McDowell worked on the script with screenwriter David Sherwin (If…).  In an interview, McDowell recalls that he was having trouble thinking of an ending and Anderson asked him how his real life adventures as a coffee salesman ended.  “That’s your ending,” Anderson told him.
  • This was McDowell’s next project after completing A Clockwork Orange in 1971, cementing his position as the most important weird actor of the early 1970s.
  • Director Anderson had tried to make documentary about singer-songwriter Alan Price before he began O Lucky Man!, but could not obtain funding to license the songs.  Anderson instead invited Price to write the songs for this movie and to appear as the leader of the touring band in the film.
  • Almost all of the actors in the film play multiple parts.  Arthur Lowe won a BAFTA Best Supporting Actor Award for his triple-role as Mr. Duff, Charlie Johnson and Dr. Munda (in blackface).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The final party scene, with the entire cast dancing to the theme song while balloons drop from the ceiling, although the shot of Dr. Millar’s medical experiments is unforgettable as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As if Mick Travis’ improbable class-trotting adventures across 1970s Britain weren’t strange enough, Lindsay Anderson sprinkles weirdness and non sequiturs throughout, including Kafkaesque interrogations, a half-man half-hog, and an unexpected breastfeeding scene. Any film in which a boarding-room neighbor inexplicably gives a young man a “golden” suit and sends him out into the world with the sage advice “try not to die like a dog,” is tipping to the weird end of the scale.

Short clip from O Lucky Man!

COMMENTS: The standard line on O Lucky Man! is that it is a satire on the capitalist Continue reading 55. O LUCKY MAN! (1973)

CAPSULE: CAT PEOPLE (1982)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

FEATURING: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr.

PLOT: A young woman struggles with an ancient family curse while pursuing the purrfect mate.

Still from Cat People (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Cat People, loosely based on the Val Lewton original, is a slightly atypical, high quality horror film.  It is a variation of the old werewolf theme, focused on felines rather than canines.  It is not quite unconventional enough to be weird, but it has a strange feel compared to other horror movies.

COMMENTS: Orphaned, beautiful Irena (Kinski) comes to live with her brother Alex (McDowell) in his creepy new Orleans home, after being separated from him for years by the mysterious death of their parents.  Alex is a pastor at an even creepier chapel and he carries the burden of some rather odd baggage.  It seems that he is taken to roaming and prowling at night, climbing trees, clawing things up, wolfing down prostitutes, and getting himself locked in zoo cages.  Worse, he unceremoniously demands sex from the mousy Irena, who isn’t exactly keen on the idea.  It never occurs to poor Alex to try sprinkling some catnip on his business areas and begging to have his tummy scratched.

Irena discovers that if she rubs up against anybody besides Alex, she will turn into a puma—a carnivorous puma with an insatiable lust for rich, red, raw human flesh.  To become human again herself, she must feast on the living.  This is of course, quite understandable.  Few things are as disappointing as a menu of Fancy Feast, when one could be munching on a delicious man like John Heard (C.H.U.D.) or his lusty girlfriend Annette O’Toole (Smile).  Heard’s zookeeper character certainly gives Irena aplenty to purr about.  Irena falls in love with Heard, but will she be able to resist his charms—and the savory goodness of his tender, meaty loins and chops?  Then there’s the matter of that pesky girlfriend with the hair like red yarn.  She caterwauls her concerns surrounding Irena, and Irena wishes a cat had her tongue.  Hopefully she’s nothing a hiss and a swat can’t take care of.

Irena explores the French Quarter and her blossoming desires, and experiences some very unsettling biological changes when she’s in heat.  She becomes embroiled in a murder case as her brother stalks her, she stalks the girlfriend, chases after Heard, and Alex plays cat and mouse with the police.  Meanwhile Heard is quickly beginning to realize that toying with the supernatural is not always the cat’s meow.

Cat People is a very arty film with a distinctive visual pawprint featuring Big Easy location cinematography and some striking, unusual shots. There are some interesting ultraviolet night sequences filmed from a werecat’s point of view that are innovative for the date of release, putting the simple thermal imaging used in Wolfen to shame.  An original score by David Bowie and Girogio Moroder (Midnight Express) compliments the avant-garde look and feel of the film.  Well acted, Cat People is a pleasing change of pace from mediocre, industry standard horror movies.  It boasts an unusual, well-structured plot and a bizarre ending which nicely balances out the heavy compliment of cat shots.  And by cat shots, I mean very solid thespianism on the part of a couple of beautiful and charming black leopards (in addition to all the of naked supple human breasts, and full frontal nude footage of the spectacular specimen of feline-esque femininity, Nastassja Kinski, captured in her prime. Rowwwr!)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The obscure proceedings are often ludicrous (especially in the orange-colored primal-dream sequences), yet you don’t get to pass the time by laughing, because it’s all so queasy and so confusingly put together…”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

“The story functions, of course, on several levels, political, sociological, philosophical and, what’s most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level.”–Stanley Kubrick

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee

PLOT:  Alex is the leader of a small gang of violent, thrill-seeking youths in England sometime in the indefinite near future.  After a home invasion goes bad, his “droogs” betray him and his victim dies, and he is sent to prison.  The government selects him to undergo experimental Pavlovian conditioning that makes him violently ill when he becomes aggressive, then releases him onto the streets as a “reformed” criminal, only to find he is helpless to defend himself when he encounters his vengeful former victims.

Still from A Clockwork Orange (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Clockwork Orange is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess.  Burgess was ultimately unhappy with this treatment of his novel, because in his intended ending for the story, Alex voluntarily reformed.  This final chapter of redemption had been excluded from American prints of the novel—the version Kubrick worked worked from—at the request of the American publisher.  Kubrick’s version ends with evil triumphant.  Although Kubrick had not read the final chapter of the novel before beginning the film, he later stated in interviews that he would not have included the happy ending anyway because he thought it rang false.
  • The title—which is not explained in the movie, only glimpsed briefly as a line of text on a typewritten page—comes from an expression Burgess overheard in a bar, “as queer as a clockwork orange.”
  • Burgess created the elaborate fictional jargon Alex uses by mixing elements of Russian and Slavic languages with Cockney slang.  Much of his original dialogue found its way into the movie.
  • A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s next project after his previous weird masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  It was also young star Malcolm McDowell’s first feature role after starring in a 1968 weird film, Lindsay Anderson’s If…
  • A Clockwork Orange was the first movie to use Dolby sound.
  • The movie was released in the United States with an “X” rating, and was later cut slightly and re-released in 1973 with an “R” rating.
  • The film was blamed for several copycat crimes in Britain and Europe, notably, a gang rape in which the rapists sang “Singin’ in the Rain” during the assualt.  Kubrick, an American who lived in the United Kingdom, was also reportedly stalked by some deranged fans of the film.  For these reasons, Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from distribution in Britain, both from live screenings and on video.  The self-imposed ban lasted until Kubrick’s death.

INDELIBLE IMAGEA Clockwork Orange filled with as many iconic images as any film of the last fifty years.  Scenes like the one where Alex and his costumed droogs walk cockily through a deserted city in slow motion have consciously or unconsciously been copied many times (compare the similar slo-mo shot of the uniformed gangsters emerging from their breakfast meeting in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs).  Probably the most instantly recognizable image is the opening closeup of Alex’s sneering face, wearing a huge false eyelash one one eye only.  I selected another memorable Malcolm McDowell closeup, the one of Alex as he’s undergoing the Ludovico technique, with wires and transistors attached to his head and metal clamps forcibly holding his eyes open so he cannot look away from the violent images on the screen, because it works as a perfect ironic metaphor for a film we cannot tear our eyes away from.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Although the plot is simple, and realistic in its own speculative

Original trailer for A Clockwork Orange

way, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is so hyper-stylized with its bizarre poetic language, sets, costumes, music, broadly exaggerated performances, and the improbable karmic symmetry of the plot that it seems to take place in a dream world or a subconscious realm.  The action, which takes the form of an ambiguous moral fable, occurs in an urban landscape that’s familiar, but fabulously twisted just beyond our expectations.

COMMENTSA Clockwork Orange did not have to be weird.  The story could have been Continue reading 30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)