Tag Archives: Medieval

LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot,

PLOT:  A disillusioned knight and his cynical squire return to a 14th century Sweden ravaged

Still from The Seventh Seal (1957)

by the Black Plague; Death comes for the knight, but he entices the Reaper to play a game of chess for his soul.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Seventh Seal is undoubtedly a great movie, but its weirdness is in doubt.  In fact, trying to decide if this film is strange enough to make it on the List almost makes me feel like Antonius Block wondering if there’s a God out there.  As an existential allegory, the film has a significant amount of unreality in its corner; although much of the movie is a starkly realistic portrait of medieval life, Bergman often ignores logic in minor ways when necessary to make his larger metaphorical points.  He also incorporates the fantastic in one major way, by making Death a literal character in the film, a “living, breathing” character who not only plays chess but also poses as a priest and chops down a tree with his scythe.  That’s not much weirdness to go on, though, and the best external support I can find for considering the movie “weird” is the fact that it’s been (inaccurately) tagged with “surrealism” on IMDB.   I’m torn; the weird movie community will need to chime in on this one.

COMMENTS: The Seventh Seal has a big, imposing reputation as a masterpiece of world cinema, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you may be surprised to find that most of what you think you know about it is wrong.  In the first place, it’s not nearly as gloomy as you may have heard.  True, every frame of the film is suffused with the foreknowledge of death—Bergman is very in-your-face with his message that you are going to die, and it’s going to be horrible—but the grim scenes alternate with lighthearted, comic ones.  The entire dynamic between the drunken smith Plog, and his unfaithful wife Maria, and her unlucky paramour Scat, for example, has a tone of bawdy Shakespearean comedy.  The idyllic scenes where the knight enjoys a meal of milk and wild strawberries with the juggler Jof and his family have a warmth that temporarily drives away the chill—even though there is a skull peering over the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

LIST CANDIDATE: VALHALLA RISING (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn

FEATURING: , Maarten Stevenson

PLOT: A mute, one-eyed slave escapes from his Viking captors and joins a group of Christians sailing to the Holy Land to join the Crusades.

Still from Valhalla Rising (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  After a leisurely beginning that gets by on atmosphere, Valhalla rises to some low-budget, low-key weirdness in its third act.  But although the movie’s wonderfully shot and recorded and full of ominous portent, the thick symbolism is so open-ended that it becomes empty, leaving little to no impact in the end.

COMMENTS:  With Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be trying to answer the question “what happens when you make a religious allegory, but leave out the allegory part?”  After triumphing with Bronson, a heavily-stylized, slightly weird movie built around a larger than life testosterone tanker, Refn turns to minimalistic cinematics to mysticize another masculine archetype.  Valhalla Rising arrives as a weirder, but weaker, outing, because the mute tattooed warrior slave One Eye is not as sharply drawn as Charlie Bronson.  It was clear what Bronson wanted—to become the most notorious prisoner in Britain, no matter how many beatings he had to take and how many hours he had to spend in solitary to get the title—and his mad obsession drove the film.  One Eye remains a mystery throughout; after escaping from captivity in the first act, he has no agenda for the rest of the film, but drifts from continent to continent with the tide.  He has blood-soaked visions of the future and builds a cairn; because he has nothing better to do with his time, he hooks up with a band of Christian crusaders heading for the Holy Land.  These people, at least, have motivations—after their ship gets lost in the doldrums and drifts to a land covered in unspoiled primeval forest, their leader decides to establish a New Jerusalem and convert the savages.  This development leads Refn into to a mini-tribute to Herzog‘s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, as the Crusaders travel downriver while being picked off by unseen savages firing arrows from the shore.   But the focus remains on the inscrutable One Eye, who travels with the suspicious Christians (who admire and fear him for his martial abilities), but he remains unreachable and aloof.  He strikes with deadly force when they threaten the closest thing he has to a friend, the boy Are; in later reels, he chops some of them up for no clearly explained reason.  At the end of the movie One Eye turns into an improbable Christ figure, and presumably shuffles off to Valhalla.  Portraying the scarred slave, who between bloodlettings spends most of the movie staring at distant horizons with an unreadable expression, as an ambiguous figure apart from humanity is a deliberate choice; but making the main character a mute cipher with no overriding motivation is a gamble.  With no narrative drive, the story often lags, symbolized by a long section where the crew dehydrates and lies about listlessly on the ship’s deck when the expedition is trapped inside misty doldrums on the Atlantic Ocean.  Fortunately, Refn creates a tremendous atmosphere of foreboding beauty, full of images of weary, weathered men framed against verdant mountains and a keening soundtrack, to carry us through when the story limps along.  The mood combines Sergio Leone’s sparse machismo with Andrei Tarkovsky‘s quiet mysticism, and if the story fails to draw us in, at least the scenery is spectacular.

The Norse deity Odin, chief of the Gods and lord of Valhalla, the afterlife’s feast hall for warriors, is often known as “the Wanderer.”  He legendarily tore out his own eye in order to gain the wisdom of the gods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mr. Refn, who can pull off stylish brutality (in the ‘Pusher’ films and ‘Bronson’), shows no knack for the kind of visionary, hallucinatory image making that would render ‘Valhalla Rising’ memorable.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING:  Bruce Campbell

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

Army of Darkness

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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