Tag Archives: Mystery

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)

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART FOUR

Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here, part II is here, and part III is here.

“God Grante That She Lye Stille” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Hardy Andrews) has series composer Jerry Goldsmith matching a rousing score to a well-worn plot about a wicked witch named Elspeth Clewer (Sarah Marshall) who is burned at the stake and places a curse upon her lineage, vowing to come back in another Clewer. 300 years later Margaret Clewer (Marshall)  apparently has just the right curves and… no prizes for guessing this plot, which is reminiscent of ‘s Black Sunday (1960). Marshall is physically reminiscent of Barbara Steele, but stamps the role with her own charisma. Henry Daniell gives a typically steely performance as the local vicar and Victor Buono, per the norm, invests his cameo with gusto. It’s well-lit with impressive ghost FX and sets, which makes for quite the grand guignol episode, despite its conventional narrative.

“Masquerade” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Donald S. Sanford) has familiar actors Elizabeth  Montgomery and John Carradine in another Old Dark House thriller that begins on a dark and stormy night. Charlie (Tom Poston) and Rosamond  (Montgomery) Denham, celebrating their second honeymoon, depart their southern trailer park (!), get lost in the rain, and come upon the old Carta place. Carta patriarch Jed (Carradine) gives them shelter and… well, the old Carta place just happens to have bats flying around, the corpse of a hog hanging upside down (with a bucket collecting its blood), bars on the windows, secret passages, a rather large number of stuffed birds, and the psychotic old woman Ruthie (Dorothy Neumann) chained to a wall. She begs the honeymooning couple to free her, which they of course do. Ruthie’s first victim is Jed’s eccentric grandson Lem (Jack Lambert), which leads to the discovery that the Carta clan are cannibalistic vampires. “Masquerade” recalls elements of Terence Fisher‘s Brides Of Dracula and ‘s Psycho, and may be something of a precursor to 1967’s Spider Baby.  “Masquerade” is not as good as any of those, however. Although the plot is now overly familiar, it revels in black comedy, and is bookended by an over the top intro by Karloff and a daffy “twist” ending. Another plus is the acerbic Montgomery and a scene stealing, creepy Carradine giving charmingly riotous performances.

Still from "Boris Karloff's Thriller," "The Last of the Sommervilles"“The Last of the Sommervilles” (directed by , written by Ida and Richard Lupino) is elevated by Karloff’s supporting performance as the amorous Dr. Farnham, who looks like a forgotten cousin of the Three Stooges and steals every scene he is Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART FOUR

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART THREE

Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here. Part II is here.

“A Good Imagination” (directed by John Brahm and written by Robert Bloch) benefits from Bloch’s narrative about fatal bookworm Frank Logan (Edward Andrews) who accesses literary classics for inspiration to dispose of his unfaithful wife’s numerous lovers. With blackened humor and erudite irony, this episode evokes both Hitchcock and Poe. Andrews’s winning portrayal has us rooting for a ruthless antagonist with an alarmingly high body count who practically whistles while he works.

“Mr. George” (directed by and written by Donald S. Sanford) is an episode that’s greater than the sum of its parts. A superb Jerry Goldsmith score, assured direction by Lupino, and good performances elevate a conventional script about a young child named Priscilla (Gina Gillespie, who would become best known as the young Blanche Hudson in 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane) whose guardian Mr. George has recently died. Now in the custody of three cousins plotting her death for the inheritance money, Priscilla is guided and protected by Mr. George’s spirit. Contemporary audiences may balk at the idea of finding humor in attempted murder of a child (as they did with Addams Family Values), but Lupino’s direction deftly balances humor with a sense of threat.

Paul Henried redeems his previous effort (season one‘s bland “Mark of the Hand”) with effective direction in “The Terror in Teakwood” (written by Alan Callow). It’s an episode in the tradition of Hands of Orlac (1924) and Mad Love (1935). Vladimir Vicek ( Guy Rolfe) severs the hands of a dead pianist to assist him in tackling an overly complicated piece composed by Alexander Borodin. Hazel Court (a Hammer scream queen who would co-star with Karloff in ‘s The Raven two years later), as Vicek’s wife Leonie, leads a strong ensemble. Though subdued, the sexual tones are startling for the period and this bizarre thriller is all the more atmospheric due to Goldsmith’s skilled use of preexisting music combined with his own work, making it a near-classic episode.

Still from Thriller, "The Prisoner in the Mirror"“The Prisoner in the Mirror” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Arthur) is another prime thriller. Professor Langham (Lloyd Bochner) literally uncovers the mirror of the evil Count Cagliostro (Henry Daniell). Possessed by the infamous Cagliostro, Langham brings the mirror home and…. needless to say, the body count will pile up. A young Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham from “Happy Days”) plays Lagham’s fiancee and even makes a toast to “happy days,” which do not arrive for the poor girl. The fantasy element is in full flower, which could also be said of the performances by both Bochner and Daniell. Interestingly, Karloff himself Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART THREE

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART TWO

Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here.

“The Poisoner,” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by  Robert Hardy Andrews) is loosely based on the real-life case of suspected serial poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainwright. Here he is given the name of Thomas Edward Griffith and played by eternally underrated actor Murray Matheson. As artist, author and dandy, Griffith, used to the fine life, lies his way into marriage with rich socialite Frances Abercrombie (Sarah Marshall), only to discover she has also lied about her wealth. Worse, she moves her family in. Fortunately, Griffith is an expert poisoner. A score from Jerry Goldsmith again accentuates the suspense. It’s fairly well shot for television and includes that favorite noir murder method—pushing a wheelchair-bound victim down a spiraling stairwell. As the Abercrombies are an across the board ingratiating lot, it’s hard not to be manipulated into sympathizing with Griffith, but his mistreatment of a poor innocent kitty reveals him to be the cad he is.

“Man in the Cage” (directed by Gerald Mayer, written by Stuart Jerome and Maxwell Shane) stars Philip Carey as engineer Darrel Hudson, going to Tangier in search for his missing brother Noel (Guy Stockwell). The exotic location and co-star Diana Millay are wasted in a hopelessly dull episode.

“Choose a Victim” (directed by Richard Carlson, better known as the beefcake protagonist of Creature From The Black Lagoon, and written by George Bellak) is another crime noir. This one features prolific television actors Susan Oliver (many will remember her as the heroine in the two-part “Star Trek” episode “The Cage”) and Larry Blyden (from both “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone”). Tragically, both actors died young: Oliver from lung cancer, Blyden from a traffic accident. Blyden plays beach bum/golddigger Ralph, who stumbles onto the sad but beautiful Edith when he sneaks into her room to rob her. Rather than turning him in, Edith is sexually attracted to daring larcenist Ralphie and demands his “attention.” The episode takes a Postman Always Rings Twice turn when Edith manipulates Ralphie in a plot to kill her wealthy uncle. Naturally, that’s not only the bit of manipulation going on, and the episode revels in playing its mind games, even if it’s not a standout thriller.

Still from "Hay-fork and Bill-hook"“Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Allan Caillou) is an uneven episode with a plot that might call to mind elements from Anthony Shaffer’s later (and vastly superior) The Wicker Man (1973). Atmosphere and a sense of dread (aided again by Goldsmith, in top form) make up for a degree of awkward writing about a coven of witches in the Druid ruins of the rural Dark Falls, in Wales. The honeymoon of Scotland Yard inspector Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART TWO

CAPSULE: THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freya Mavor, Benjamin Biolay, Elio Germano,

PLOT: When he’s away on business, a Parisian secretary who has never seen the ocean takes her boss’s Thunderbird on a road trip, but everywhere she goes people swear they’ve seen her before—is she going crazy?

Still from The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For a while, the Lady seems to be driving her borrowed car into French territory, but she ultimately crashes it into mere implausibility.

COMMENTS: Forget the car, glasses and gun: the Lady, portrayed by Freya Mavor, is something to see. Freya was the Norse goddess of love and sex, and with her red hair, willowy build and tempting freckles, Mavor could pass for Scandinavian love goddess (she’s actually Scottish). It’s the Lady (not the plot) that is Lady‘s chief asset, and the way he shoots Mavor, I think director Johann Sfar knows it. He begins the film with her dancing madly at the sea shore, flaming hair flying around her head and bare feet pattering on the sea-soaked concrete of the pier, then cuts to an earlier scene where the model/actress is shot in unflattering light to actually make her look kind of ugly (a remarkable feat of cinematography). But as her confidence increases throughout the story, her hemline rises. Mavor’s girlish looks and waifish figure lend her an air of forbidden innocence that makes her future behavior seem all the more shocking.

As the pseudo-doppelanger plot synopsis might suggest, mirrors will provide key imagery here, and an early scene where the Lady’s reflection disobeys her provides one of the first hints of an ever-increasing subjectivity that leads us to suspect that she’s headed for madness. The plot kicks into gear after the Lady has borrowed the car, and keeps running into people who insist they’ve seen her recently; for example, eating breakfast that morning in a country café when she was actually in Paris at the time. On her road trip, she’s also assaulted at random, and starts making poor decisions re: picking up sleazy drifters at roadside motels. Our attention is diverted by Sfar’s style (cool music, cool cars, sexy chicks, impossible occurrences); and the Lady seems to be turning schizophrenic, until fifteen minutes of closing exposition explain what’s really been going on all along. Many people criticized the climax as a clunky dénouement device, but I was more disappointed in the solution to the mystery, which relies too much on crazy coincidence for my satisfaction.

Johann Sfar has been hanging around on the fringes of weird films for a while now, starting with the mildly hallucinatory biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, and continuing with The Rabbi’s Cat, his arcane adaptation of his own graphic novel about a snarky, sacrilegious pet. In Lady‘s second act the thick, nearly surrealistic atmosphere makes this remake of the seldom-seen 1970 shocker of the same title seem like it’s going to be Sfar’s weirdest film; ultimately, however, it ends up as his most conventional. Sfar remains an unpredictable force with the potential to unleash something fantastically weird in the future, although each near-miss diminishes our enthusiasm for his work just a little.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sfar creates the eerie impression of being trapped in someone else’s dream. Relying on hallucinatory tricks in which time seems to roll back on itself, or else lurch forward to some possible future, the helmer makes everything feel surreal enough that we hardly stop to consider the only logical explanation, delivered in stultifying detail over a tedious, low-tension climax.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MEAT (2010)

Vlees

DIRECTED BY:  Victor Nieuwenhuijs, Maartje Seyferth

FEATURING: Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner

PLOT: An emotionally neutered detective investigates a murder at a butcher shop where all the employees have high libidos.

Still from Meat (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is no question that this is a weird one. But Meat never really matches its mystery to the grand theme or emotional resonance it’s searching for. It’s main virtue is that it’s short and sexy, making for a relatively easy watch despite its challenging narrative format.

COMMENTS: Here are some things that happen in Meat: a butcher has sex with a co-worker in a meat locker while another employee secretly videotapes it. A woman plummets to her death. The butcher is found murdered. Here are some things that may or may not happen in Meat: The woman who lives in the room above the shop is a prostitute who meets tricks there during business hours. The prime suspect is raped by a man wearing a skull mask the night of the murder. The murder investigation is conducted by the victim’s doppelganger. Here are some things that don’t happen in Meat, despite the fact that we see them: Three middle-aged customers approach the meat display case, totally nude. The detective watches man being led away from a slaughterhouse, one of them dressed like a chicken, while blood drips down his windshield. Cows, lambs and pigs find their way into the butcher shop at night and urinate on the floor.

It’s that kind of movie. After a set-up that is only marginally odd, focused more on eroticism than surrealism, the last third of the movie surrenders entirely to dream logic. Cryptic shots of a butterfly and a woman submerged in a bathtub, plus elliptical monologues about sheep-slaughtering, are spread through the early sections as harbingers of the all-out weirdness to come. Our dumpy middle-aged butcher has some sort of sexual arrangement with a woman who lives at the shop and whose main duty seems to be to sleep with all the male employees; yet, he naturally fancies the slim blond college-aged part-time worker whose short skirt is half-hidden under her floor-length butcher’s apron. He comes up to her from behind and whispers his dirty old man fantasies into her nubile ears. In the real world, his come-ons would be actionable sexual harassment; here, because they occur while the girl is breathlessly videotaping a dish full of animal organs, it’s mere sexual absurdism.

Later, the phraseology of this scene will be mirrored in the investigator’s language as he interviews the girl, now a suspect: seduction has become interrogation; desire, guilt. Meat‘s strategy is to vacillate between opposites: the body as a sexual canvas, and as a collection of organs to be hacked apart and sold; genitals as organs of pleasure, and portals for the release of bodily waste. Desire goes to war with disgust, as rationality yields to irrationality. Meat explores issues of sex, carnality and guilt—maybe with a side of vegetarianism.

After screening at a handful of European film festivals, Meat spent six years in a post-presentation, pre-distribution netherworld before Artsploitation Films picked it up for belated September 2016 DVD release. With no clear audience besides arthouse curiosity seekers, Meat is an orphan that needs your love.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bizarre, chilling little character drama …”–Matthew Lee, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

LATTIE (2016, KEVIN L. CHENAULT)

There is always the risk of sentimentality for a writer, actor, director in depicting a terminally ill, or potentially terminal ill, character. The risk is even greater if none of the above have experienced the process.

Picasso once listed nostalgia and sentimentality as enemies of art, and reportedly walked out on the premiere screening of ‘s valentine to himself, the embarrassingly saccharine Limelight (1952). The younger Chaplin, unfettered by dialogue, is one of the few artists who could actually get away with overt pathos. An older, talking Chaplin could not.

As written, directed by and starring , Lattie (2016) does not entirely escape or transcend that inherent risk. Like Chaplin, Lattie succeeds most when relying on visuals to interpret his narrative. Even then, the film is uneven. At times, Chenault is almost in an experimental mode, but there are just as many vignettes that hold back and play it safe. Striking a James-Dean-lying-alone-on-the-floor posture, contemplating his condition, Lattie smokes his cigarette down to the butt, accompanied by angsty indie alt music that sounds like it cut its teeth on post-Syd Barret Pink Floyd (AKA “lesser Floyd”). Lattie receives a voice message of concern, talks to family and shrink, gets hugged.  Here, it’s paint-by-numbers filmmaking, a rudimentary sketch hampered by arthritic acting, with the exception of Chenault himself as the title character.

Still from Lattie (2016)Once done with the obligatory disease-of-the-week bullet points, Chenault trusts himself, and us, venturing into quirkier, more refreshing terrain. Lattie is catapulted into an absurdist murder mystery combining offbeat humor and visual cues: a Christmas tree, a pre-adolescent drawing on a face, an ominous Bible as a facade for a cash-stashed phone book. When overly-serious family members prod him about his impending drama, Lattie is too preoccupied to invest much time in shoulder-patting. He has a mystery to solve. Damn right. And, of course, there are the little hassles, like an uncooperative truck and stooge-like adversaries who attempt to derail the murder investigation.

Lattie is episodic in the best way, its surreal qualities conveyed in under-the-breath pacing. When it gets right to the meat of it, Lattie confirms that, for death to be interesting, there has to be a bit of funny business. The unexpected finale is welcome and queerly memorable.

Chenault’s body of work is an interesting one, with his strengths being in sublime restraint (seen at its most effective in 2011’s The Strangers). As in Chenault’s previous efforts, Lattie is well-filmed and shows a filmmaker concerned about craftsmanship, commendably unhampered by budget restraints.

More information on Lattie is available at the official home page.

LIST CANDIDATE: LI’L QUINQUIN (2014)

P’tit Quinquin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bruno Dumont

FEATURING: Alane Delhaye, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore, Lucy Caron

PLOT: A big city detective with facial tic disorder comes to a remote French beach village to investigate a bizarre double murder: parts of the victims were found inside the bodies of cows.

Still from Li'l Quinquin (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Bruno Dumont’s sprawling (206 minute) longform Gallic mystery is quirky and ominous in about equal measure, with an ambiguous non-conclusion that adds to the weirdness while also making the entire enterprise feel strangely incomplete.

COMMENTS: Because of its quirky dark humor and strange-outsider-in-a-stranger-town mystery plot, L’il Quinquin almost always dubbed “the French ‘Twin Peaks.'” Indeed, it shares many of that series’ strengths and weaknesses: absurd, dark humor; meandering subplots that can become more interesting than the main thread; fascinating rural eccentrics; a hint of the supernatural; and an unsatisfactory resolution.

That last part bears keeping in mind. Although L’il Quinquin is presented as a mystery, beginning with the macabre discovery of human body parts inside of cows, the murders are, most frustratingly, not solved at the end. This fact is in accord with the director’s wishes—he presents a world where evil is allowed to triumph, even to the extent of remaining anonymous—but, after such an amazing buildup, the anticlimax inevitably leaves a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.

That disappointment won’t arrive until the very end, however, and there is much to savor up until then. We’ll start with the performance of Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a detective who looks like Albert Einstein with uncontrollable facial tics—his expression changes an average of two times per second. Pruvost projects a weird sort of competence, and serves as the film’s disapproving moral center, but shares the limelight with Alane Delhaye as the titular Quinquin, a mischievous “bad kid” who absorbs the town’s unreflective racism, but is redeemed by his innocence and his genuine love for a neighbor girl (Lucy Caron, whose penetrating stare recalls the blank intensity of Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom). There’s also an African Muslim boy who snaps when a popular white girl rejects him; a beautiful and talented young chanteuse who seems bound for the big city; Carpentier, Van der Weyden’s dim and nearly toothless second-in-command; Quinquin’s uncle, a speechless, nearly catatonic wreck just back from the institution, given to wandering around in circles; and dozens of other weirdos in brief bits (like the developmentally-disabled English man who throws dishes in a restaurant while the detective is giving a status report to his superior officer). Offbeat comic touches, often quite absurd, break up the serious dramatic sections: a pair of priests preside over an awkward funeral and giggle inappropriately; Quinquin is bedeviled by a costumed younger boy calling himself “Speedyman!” who shows up on his doorstep without explanation; a car careens down the street on two wheels. But in the midst of all this everyday madness, things grow ever darker, as secrets are uncovered and more and more bodies are found, leading the detective to his eventual, apparently final, conclusion: “l’enfer, ici” (“this is Hell, here”).

But for all L’il Quinquin‘s assets, it ends on little more than that involuntary eyebrow shrug by our detached detective. I appreciate an ambiguous ending, when well done, but the idea of a mystery that is never resolved, yet is wrapped up in a way that the audience will find emotionally satisfying, remains cinema’s elusive white whale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a wonderfully weird and unexpectedly hilarious murder mystery.”–Scott Foundas, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florinda Bolkan, Jean Sorel, Stanley Baker, Leo Genn, , Mike Kennedy, George Rigaud, Anita Strindberg

PLOT: A neurotic woman dreams that she kills her hedonistic neighbor, then finds herself accused of murder when the crime actually happens just as she dreamed it.

Still from A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the powerful psychedelic dream sequences, Lizard is a bit too rational in its plan—something Lucio Fulci was seldom accused of.

COMMENTS: Lucio Fulci is best known in horror circles for his brutally gory and none-to-coherent “spaghetti zombie” movies, made as cynical cash-ins on  hits, but he began his career working in the distinctively Italian exploitation/mystery hybrid known as the giallo. While the gialli—which relied on trashy psychologies of sex and violence and sexual violence—seldom approached the level of high art, they were more stylish and serious-minded than the typical B-movie. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a classic of the genre. Fulci shows his aptitude for mildly surrealistic montages in the two precognitive (?) nightmares suffered by poor, prudish Carol—they’re luxuriant visions of blood and nudity, and they evoke dreamlike sensations of falling and traveling through corridors that reference the psychological horrors of Repulsion and Vertigo. Fulci and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller also produced some excellent, evocative effects with special “wavering” lenses that made parts of the dream sequences look like they were shot through funhouse mirrors.

Of course, even in his worst films, Fulci was known for his ability to craft arresting images, while he had an equally profound reputation for paying little heed to plot or continuity. (Fulci would have made a great music video director if that format had been prominent during his career). In contrast to his later movies, Lizard stands out for its comparatively complex and detailed storyline. Of course, there are a few slip-ups. A red-headed woman who appears to lives with Carol and her family is never properly introduced, and figuring out who she is or why she is always around is almost as big a mystery as the murderer’s identity. And while Lizard‘s ending is tighter and perhaps not as much of a cheat as some commentators suppose—although serious questions about the timing of events do linger—it’s not completely satisfying, either. The fast-moving denouement is delivered clumsily, so that the mystery is still a little confusing even after everything has been wrapped up. Some characters have their stretched motivations, and they clearly exist only to increase the number of suspects and red herrings: these elements utilize the logic, not of a dream, but of a paranoid hallucination. Perhaps this is why Lizard‘s narrative fumblings don’t seem to matter that much in the overall scheme. Although there may be a comforting rational explanation to events at the end, the parallel construction of the film as a portrait of a woman undergoing a breakdown (the original U.S. release title was Schizo) fits better with Lizard‘s atmosphere, tone, and theme of sexual deviancy.

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has been released on DVD in various versions with different running times. Many prints omit a controversial scene with vivisected dogs (don’t worry, it’s fake, although it was convincing enough at the time to force the filmmakers to demonstrate how it was done to defend themselves from charges of animal cruelty). The 2016 Mondo Macabro Blu-ray release incorporates all the footage known to exist and, at 104 minutes, runs the longest of any of the Lizard‘s releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fulci was not, at this point, as invested in the conscious surrealism of Bava or Argento, and in particular his attention to gory effects, far above and beyond those men (he was easily the most bloodthirsty of the major Italian horror directors), grants A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin a grounded, visceral realism that makes its psychedelic excesses far more punch than they might have had.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy (DVD)

CAPSULE: BLOW-UP (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Michelangelo Antonioni

FEATURING: , Vanessa Redgrave

PLOT: A hedonistic fashion photographer snaps some candid pictures of a couple in a park; when he looks at the negatives, he thinks he may have discovered evidence of a murder.

Still from Blow-up (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blow-Up is only subtly weird, and its oddness only becomes truly apparent at the end. This site’s readers have never, to my memory, suggested this movie for review; and yet, Antonioni’s ambiguous examination of London mods in existential free-fall is something of a canonical art film that must be touched upon in a comprehensive survey of weird films.

COMMENTS: Let me put Blow-Up in a personal context. When I first saw this movie in my early twenties, I despised it. I can’t find my original review, but in essence, my viewpoint was that making a deliberately boring movie in order to critique the boredom of modern life—capped by the director dangling a single point of interest in front of the audience, only to snatch it away—was a reprehensible bit of auteurial sadism. Over time, however, I have to admit that several moments from Blow-Up lingered in my memory for years, like snapshots, indicating that the movie can’t be as bad, or as boring, as I originally thought it was. Seeing it again after a couple of intervening decades, I find I tolerate its (significant) longeurs much better; and, although I’ll stop short of reassessing it as a must-see masterpiece, I do reluctantly find its intellectual ambiguities (eventually) involving.

To understand the experience of Blow-Up, it’s important to point out that, for most of this film, nothing of significance happens. But a few scenes pop. There are, basically, four such sequences (leaving aside the opening where a gaggle of rambunctious mimes rampage through the streets of London, which might have been forgotten had they not returned in the coda). After a first half of the movie that features David Hemmings doing nothing other than snapping photographs of emaciated models, making snotty comments, and considering buying a propeller, the first scene of actual interest occurs when the movie is more than halfway over, when he looks at a series of photographs he snapped in the park earlier in the day. He thinks he sees something that might be a clue to a murder. What really “pops” about this scene is the photographer’s sudden look of interest as he peers at the blown-up negatives; mostly, he has appeared as bored as the audience up until this point. The fact that this monumentally jaded character is suddenly roused by this discovery makes it seem extra-important to us; the look of fascination on his face says to us “something is finally happening, the movie is starting!”

Indeed, the movie is starting, but not in the way we expect. As he blows up the photos, scanning for them for clues, the photographer is distracted by the appearance of two aspiring models, who bed him. It’s a hot scene, but the memorable part is when post-coital Hemmings suddenly glances at the photographs hanging on the wall, catches a new detail, and brusquely dismisses the birds to resume his investigation. Blow-Up‘s rhythm now requires that the photographer vacillate between intense commitment to solving the mystery and distraction by sex, drugs and the rock and roll lifestyle, so as he tries to investigate the suspected murder and convince his fellow mods to become involved, he finds himself wandering into a bizarre Yardbirds concert with a zombie-like audience. The final “popping” scene is the much talked-about finale, where, after having failed to solve the mystery, Hemmings encounters the hip mimes from the opening again. They pantomime a tennis game and ask him to fetch an imaginary ball in a final game that suggests that the thing we are seeking can be found, but we must know how to look.

Focusing on those key scenes and discarding the chaff makes Blow-Up a stronger film; the background noise of the photographer’s meaningless, fashionable mod existence is the texture from which the few meaningful moments pop. Although many movies improve on a second viewing, I can’t think of any that do so as dramatically as Blow-Up. Unlike Hemmings, the second time around we know what we are looking for. There’s nothing terribly obscure in the film’s overall design and sensibility, only in the maddening details and the quest to make sense of them. Blow-up is a foundational text of cinema d’ennui.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) and reminds one of so many naïvely bad experimental films.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)