Tag Archives: Paganism

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

“The montage of hermetic symbols becomes first dreamlike, then menacing; centuries of mystical thought are distilled into a series of voyeuristic fantasies, a kinky psychodrama backed by the carnival strains of a maleficent calliope.  Anger intended Lucifer Rising to stand as a form of ritual marking the death of the old religions like Judaism and Christianity, and the ascension of the more nihilistic age of Lucifer.”–Mikita Brottman in “Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Myriam Gibril, , Marianne Faithfull, Leslie Huggins,

PLOT: Lava erupts and the goddess Isis awakens, calling to her husband Osiris. In a room far away a man wakes up, sits on a throne in his apartment and somehow spears a woman in a forest far away, then climbs into a bathtub to wash off the blood. Later, the moon awakens the goddess Lilith, a magick ritual summons Lucifer, and flying saucers appear over Luxor, Egypt.

Still from Lucifer Rising (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Anger originally shot a film called Lucifer Rising (A Love Vision) in 1966, which starred Bobby Beausoleil as Lucifer.  Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole most of the completed footage and hid it; the star contended that Anger merely ran out of money to complete the movie.  Anger then took out an obituary-style ad in The Village Voice announcing his retirement from filmmaking.  Whatever the case, Anger incorporated some of the surviving footage from the original Lucifer into Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969).
  • Anger began working on the project again in 1970 and completed the first cut of Lucifer Rising in 1973, with a score by Jimmy Page.  After a falling out with Page he had the movie re-scored by Bobby Beausoleil.
  • Beausoleil was a Haight-Ashbury musician who came under Anger’s influence during the Summer of Love.  After his falling out with Anger the musician joined Charles Manson’s “Family.” He murdered music teacher Gary Hinman in 1969 over a drug deal gone wrong, and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Anger contacted him to create the music for Lucifer Rising, and he wrote and recorded the score from prison.  The band heard on the soundtrack is comprised of his fellow inmates.
  • Lucifer Rising was completed with funds from the National Film Finance Corporation of Great Britain, prompting some controversy about state funding of a “devil film.”  Anger also received financial assistance from the Germany’s Hamburg Television and the U.S.’s National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Anger did not complete the editing on the final cut until 1981, a decade after work was begun.
  • In one of the film’s final scenes there is a long shot of the Colossi of Memnon in Upper Egypt. If you look hard you can see a puff of smoke rising in the distant background. According to Anger, this came from him ceremonially burning the film’s script because the work was now complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The orange UFO flying over the crumbling columns of the Temple of Luxor, then peeking over the shoulder of the colossal ancient statue of Ramses II.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Egyptian gods and goddesses frolicking through a magickal psychedelic landscape, summoning Lucifer and flying saucers.


Trailer for “The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 2 (including clips and music from Lucifer Rising)

COMMENTS:  A shaggy-haired man in a robe of many colors caresses a stone column. A Continue reading 102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

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: THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

FEATURING: Voices of Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally

PLOT: In Ireland in the Dark Ages, Brendan chafes under the rule of his stern uncle, an

Still from The Secret of Kells (2009)

abbot obsessed with building a wall around the monastery to repel Viking invaders; the boy’s apprenticeship into the art of creating illuminated manuscripts gives him the courage to leave the safety of the village and enter the faerie-haunted forest that surrounds it.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s original, artistically superior and nearly dreamlike, but it lacks that defiant sense of “otherness” needed to carry it from the realm of the offbeat to the truly weird.

COMMENTS:  If Walt Disney hired a group of 9th century Irish monks to oversee the work of the animators who created Fantasia, the completed project might look something like The Secret of Kells.  (In fact, the animators weren’t Disney veterans, but some of the same folks who pulled off The Triplets of Belleville).  Both the story and the animation style of Secret were inspired by the historical Book of Kells, one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the history of Christendom.  Just as in the movie, books like Kells kept the light of knowledge and civilization burning during the Dark Ages, and invading barbarian hordes intent on plunder did threaten to quench that flame. (The movie is impeccably researched and filled with sly little details: even the white cat Pangur Bán is a historical figure).  Brendan’s quest to preserve and complete the Book places his story in an epic context, and it raises interesting implications about the way pagan and Christian beliefs melded to form a common culture, but the real tale here is the mythological Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell defined it: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  Brendan, the novice, ventures from the walls of the monastery into the mystical forest, where he encounters the faerie spirit Aisling: he defeats the sleeping pagan god Crom Cruach, symbolically becomes a man, and returns to Kells as the conquering hero who completes the Book and keeps civilization alive.  (Curiously, Christianity is never explicitly mentioned in the script; presumably, the omission is an attempt to universalize the tale).  The simple and familiar structure is a brilliant choice to tell this story, because it allows you to settle in and let the amazing imagery float through your eye and into your mind.  The color scheme is jewel-like, like the eye-popping miracle inks the monks go to great lengths to acquire for the Book.  Like the illustrations on the margins of an illuminated manuscript, elaborate curlicue motifs and baroque Celtic knots appears everywhere in the film—look for them drifting about in fog, falling in snowflakes, or hidden in the foliage of the forest.  Sometimes the edges of the frame will be decorated with these figures, like the margins in the real Book of Kells: but here, they acquire another dimension, swirling and dancing about, sometimes invading the frame like spinning Celtic amoebae.  The human figures, in contrast, are abstract, stylized and geometric. Abbot Cellach’s stature in the community is revealed in his freakish height; the bodies of the wolves are assembled out of sharp toothy triangles; the Vikings are brute cinderblock shadows with horns.  The styles merge to create a unique, otherworldly visual experience that simultaneously recalls the artwork of medieval monks and classic storybooks. The synthesis is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  It’s a picture-perfect, visionary universe in which to set a tale trumpeting art and imagination as the essence of civilization, the only power strong enough to defeat the forces of darkness and barbarism.

No one denies the films visual authority; the sole criticisms revolve around the supposition that it’s light on plot.  I’m not so sure: the movie encompasses the story of a young boy who becomes a man and an artist, and it has fox-spirits, ancient pagan gods, mystical forests, spells, historical allegories, a flawed authority figure, moral dilemmas, Viking assaults… really, all its missing is a wisecracking anthropomorphic sidekick and a chase scene.  And I don’t miss those.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“On the visual level, the film is on a higher plane… The climactic sequence in which the Vikings finally attack might scare small fry if it weren’t so surreally, almost mathematically beautiful.”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966)

DIRECTED BY:  J. Lee Thompson

FEATURING:  Sharon Tate, , David Niven, , Flora Robson

PLOT: A happy marriage descends into an odyssey of terror when a woman’s husband is called to his ancestral estate by pagan heretics.

Still from Eye of the Devil (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Eye of the Devil tells a strange story, the occult  genre always spins an unusual yarn. In this context, strange is normal. Aside from being well produced, Eye of the Devil is noteworthy only because it debuts the doomed Sharon Tate.

COMMENTS: Vineyard owner Marquis Philippe de Montfaucon (Niven) is called back to his castle when a drought withers the crop, upon which the entire region depends. His wife and children are supposed to remain in London, but of course she becomes curious and is compelled to intrude. Catherine de Montfaucon (Deborah Kerr) subsequently discovers that her husband is behaving in a secretive and peculiar manner. His personality has undergone a distinct change and he seems dreadfully grim and preoccupied. Why?

There are many mysterious comings and goings, some heavyweight clergy are milling around who appear to be legitimate, but why are the Marquis’ young cousins shooting medieval arrows at her, casting spells on her children, and trying to hypnotize her into leaping off of the castle parapets? And who the devil are those troublesome dark characters in black Franciscan monk’s robes, chasing Catherine about in the deep dark woods?

As Catherine snoops, she discovers mounting evidence of heretical pagan practices and that an extraordinary number of the Marquis’ antecedents met untimely deaths. Could there be a relation between the deaths and some profound event that her husband seems to be preparing for?

Flora Robson (The Shuttered Room) is creepy and aloof as always in her role as the Marquis’ Aunt.  Sharon Tate (in her film debut) plays a sinister and threatening witch who turns frogs into doves and seems to perversely enjoy taking a good old fashioned horse whipping from the Marquis. (Blow-up, Juggernaut) cavorts as her delightfully menacing, archery-happy brother. Eye of the Devil features crisp, striking, artful black and white cinematography by Erwin Hillier.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kerr is our only touch with reality, and she tries to carry the pic, to little avail.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

“I’m more interested in truth than in reality.”—Guillermo del Toro, Time Out interview

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

PLOT:  While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.

Still from Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

<BACKGROUND:

  • Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
  • Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006. With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
  • Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s  head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.


Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth

COMMENTS:  You can have brilliant cinematography, masterful acting, awe-inspiring Continue reading 40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige

FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material

PLOT:  A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor.  A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body.  She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.

Still from Begotten (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie.  According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
  • It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
  • Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991.  Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
  • After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films.  A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
  • After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD.  Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:

    There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film.  My experiments in BluRay have been promising.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack.  Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.

Original trailer for Begotten

COMMENTSBegotten is a difficult film to rate.  It does not set out to entertain, and it does not Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

“This fearful worm would often feed on cows and lamb and sheep,
And swallow little babes alive when they lay down to sleep.
So John set out and got the beast and cut it into halves,
And that soon stopped it eating babes and sheep and lambs and calves.”

–Lyrics to “The D’Ampton Worm” from Lair of the White Worm
Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns

PLOT:  An archeology student visiting the British countryside digs up an elongated skull he assumes belongs to an dinosaur while excavating the site of a buried convent, now an English bed-and-breakfast run by two young sisters.  Lord James D’Ampton is the boyfriend of one of the sisters, and also the descendant of a legendary D’Ampton who reputedly slew a dragon (the “D’Ampton Worm”) that had terrorized the countryside.  After wintering in climes unknown, slinky and regal Lady March returns to her mansion and discovers the skull, after which strange events begin to transpire…

Still from Lair of the White Worm (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Russell’s script was very loosely based on Bram (“Dracula”) Stoker’s 1911 novel, although the similarity almost ends with the shared title.
  • This was Russell’s second horror film in three years after Gothic (1986).
  • Hugh Grant had roles in six films released in 1988, including portrayals of Chopin and Lord Byron.
  • This was Amanda Donohoe’s second starring role in a feature film.  She went on to greater fame when she joined the cast of the hit T.V. show “L.A. Law” in 1990.  Catherine Oxenberg, on the other hand, had made a name for herself on the hit T.V. show “Dynasty,” and this was her first feature role in a theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A 30 second hallucination sequence featuring Roman soldiers raping nuns before a cross on which a monstrous worm slithers over a crucified Jesus while a topless blue vampire woman looks on joyfully, waggling her tongue.  The scene is dressed up in lurid colors and performed in front of a deliberately cheesy looking blue-screen inferno.  So over-the-top and parodic that it’s not nearly as offensive as it sounds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Ken Russell throws a handful of his typically excessive hallucination/dream sequences into what is otherwise a subtle horror parody, creating a minor masterpiece of deliberate camp blooming with ridiculously memorable scenes.

Clip from Lair of the White Worm

COMMENTS:  The one word that immediately comes to mind to describe Ken Russell’s The Continue reading 23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

“I think it is a film fantastique in a way… a film fantastique can have almost anything in it, it’s based on facts but it can take flights of fancy which are still rooted to the truth, to the reality of the story, so the imagination can roam.”–Robin Hardy

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Robin Hardy

FEATURING:  Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland,

PLOT:  A devout Christian policeman flies to the isolated island of Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate a report of a missing girl.  When he gets there, everyone denies knowledge of the girl, but he notices with increasing disgust that the entire island is practicing old pagan rituals and licentious sex.  As his investigation continues, he uncovers evidence suggesting that the missing girl was a resident of the island, and may have met a horrible fate.

the_wicker_man_1973

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer was a hot property in 1973 after adapting his own successful mystery play Sleuth into a 1972 hit movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and penning the screenplay for Frenzy (1972) for Alfred Hitchcock.  His clout was so great that this film was released under the official title Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man.  He later adapted Agatha Christie novels such as Murder on the Orient Express (1974) for the big screen.
  • Director Robin Hardy, despite doing an excellent job on this film, did not direct a feature film again until 1986’s Wicker Man variation, The Fantasist.
  • Christopher Lee, who had just come to the end of his run as Hammer’s Dracula, donated his acting services to the production.  He was quoted in 1977 as saying, “It’s the best part I’ve ever had.  Unquestionably.”
  • The “wicker man” was a historically accurate feature of Druidic religions that was first described to the world by Julius Caesar in his “Commentary on the Gallic Wars.”
  • In Britain the film was released on the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now, perhaps the most impressive psychological horror double feature in history.
  • Shaffer and Hardy published a novelization of the film in 1976.
  • “Cinefastique” devoted an entire 1977 issue to the film, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.”
  • In 2001, an additional 12 minutes of deleted scenes were added to create a “Director’s Cut” version.
  • Some of the original footage is believed to be lost forever, including part of the scene where Sgt. Howie first meets Lord Summerisle.  The original negative was accidentally thrown away when original producer British Lion Films went under and cleaned out its vaults.
  • The climax was voted #45 in Bravo’s list of the “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The 2006 Neil LaBute remake starring Nicolas Cage had as little as possible to do with the original story, was universally reviled, and was even accused of being misogynistic.  Some argue that it is so poorly conceived and made that it has significant camp value.
  • Hardy released a “spiritual sequel,” The Wicker Tree, in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The wicker man itself (although, for those of a certain gender, Britt Ekland’s nude dance may be even harder to forget).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Hardy and Shaffer create an atmosphere like no other; it’s an encounter of civilized man with strange, primeval beliefs.  Select scenes are subtly surreal—observe how the villagers break into an impossibly well-choreographed bawdy song about the innkeeper’s daughter preternaturally designed to discomfit their sexually repressed guest.  Other weird incidents are more outrageously in the viewer’s face: the vision of a woman breastfeeding a child in a graveyard while delicately holding an egg in her outstretched hand.  Almost invisible details such as the children’s lessons scribbled on the classroom blackboard (“the toadstone protects the newly born from the weird woman”) saturate the film and reveal how painstakingly its makers constructed a haunting alternate world of simultaneously fascinating and repulsive pagan beliefs.  The rituals Sergeant Howie witnesses don’t always make sense (and when they do, their significance is repulsive to him), but they tap into a deep, buried vein of myth.  The viewer himself undergoes a dread confrontation with Old Gods who are at the same time familiar and terrifyingly strange.

Original trailer for The Wicker Man

COMMENTS: CONFESSION: The version reviewed here–horrors!–is the 88 minute theatrical Continue reading 21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)