Tag Archives: Recommended

CAPSULE: SUSPIRIA (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luca Guadagnino

FEATURING: Dakota Johnson, ,

PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.

Still from Suspiria (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.

COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from ‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of ?”)

So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and the script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.

If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended to connect, but puzzling them out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.

I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.

The  cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a spectacularly strange affair, thrumming with wild blood and weird powers. It’s easily the classiest horror movie made in years, maybe ever…”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)

355. LUNACY (2005)

Sílení 

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”–Edgar Allen Poe, 1848 letter to George W. Eveleth

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A young man suffers recurring nightmares about white-coated men coming to seize him in the night. When he awakens the guests at a roadside inn as he thrashes about during one of these attacks, one man, a modern-day Marquis, takes an interest in him and invites him back to his manor. There, the Marquis troubles the traveler with macabre games that may be real or may be staged, then suggests he voluntarily commit himself to an experimental mental asylum for “purgative therapy” to cure his nightmares.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • The script is loosely based on two stories: “The Premature Burial” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The character of the Marquis is obviously based on the .
  • Svankmajer wrote an initial version of the script that became Lunacy in the 1970s, but the Communist authorities refused to approve the film.
  • This was the last film Svankmajer would work on with his longtime collaborator, costume designer, and wife, Eva Svankmajerová; she died a few months after the film’s completion. Among her other duties, she painted the deck of cards featuring Sadean tortures.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one of Svankmajer’s meaty animations. We picked the scene of brownish cow tongues slithering out of a classical bust—including a pair escaping from the marble nipples—but we wouldn’t blame you for going with the sirloin marionettes instead.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Meat bumpers; shirt unlocking door; human chickens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s got the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks dancing in between scenes. Despite that lineup, it may be Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional movie. The director calls it an “infantile tribute to Edgar Allen Poe” in his introduction—and is interrupted by a tongue inching its way across the floor.


Introduction to Lunacy (2005)

COMMENTS: The trailer explains that ” + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.” It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents would produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing Continue reading 355. LUNACY (2005)

LIST CANDIDATE: MYSTICS IN BALI (1981)

Leák

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: H. Tjut Djalil

FEATURING: Ilona Agathe Bastian, Yos Santo, Sofia W.D., W.D. Mochtar

PLOT: American author Cathy King, traveling to Bali to research a book about witchcraft, gets tricked by a witch she’s interviewing, who turns her into a flying head to serve her own needs.

Still from Mystics in Bali (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even taking into account that this is all about an island culture’s religious folklore located halfway around the world, Mystics in Bali is still way weirder than it needs to be. The cartoonish special effects pile on the low-budget charm while we’re besieged by visions of animal transformations, witch battles, and humans barfing live mice. How can we refuse to consider it?

COMMENTS: The province island of Bali, Indonesia, is one of the world’s most popular tourist spots, mixing some of the world’s greatest surfing and diving on water with one of the most colorful and flavorful traditional cultures on land. Indonesia is the proverbial land of a thousand gods and a million ways to worship them, with ancient animism and spirit temples cheerfully coexisting with modern Hinduism. This is the background for our story, Mystics in Bali. Much of the structure of its story is based in traditional Balinese and Malaysian folklore. From some of the stranger aspects of this mythology, imagine how wacky our own religions sound to a non-practicer out of context. That helps us keep a level head on our shoulders (sorry) during this wild, dark ride—even though this could not be called a normal movie in any culture.

American author Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian) is in Bali to study black magic, intending to write a book. Her friend and local guide Mahendra (Yos Santo) takes her into the jungle and introduces her to an ancient witch, the Queen of Leák (a discipline of black magic). The first time the Queen (Sofia W.D.) appears, she’s a cackling hag with flowing white hair and waggling long fingernails, who warns them that she has many appearances. (Note to The Blair Witch Project: ten minutes in and here’s our witch. Was that so hard?) The Queen agrees to take Cathy on as a disciple, provided Cathy and Mahendra return bearing gifts of jewels and bottles of blood to offer the Queen in tribute. They do, and she transforms into a long glowing tentacle emerging from the bushes to claim it. She orders Cathy to remove her skirt so she can inscribe an incantation on her thigh to imbue magical powers. From here on out she demands to see her new apprentice alone, since her escort makes the Queen suspicious. Note that she is referred to as the “Queen” throughout the movie, but there’s nothing regal about her; she’s apparently the queen of the swamp she lives in and of the black arts she’s mastered.

Cathy dutifully returns alone to begin her witch training. This involves nightly dances and rituals during which the Queen and Cathy Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: MYSTICS IN BALI (1981)

354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

“It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”–J. R. Ross, “Constraints on Variables in Syntax”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Toshio Furukawa, Fumi Hirano, Machiko Washio, Akira Kamiya, Takuya Fujioka; Wayne Grayson (as Vinnie Penna), Roxanne Beck, Marnie Head, Draidyl Roberts (English dub)

PLOT: Students in the town of Tomobiki prepare for a fair the following day. One of the teachers, suffering from exhaustion, develops a strange feeling of déjà vu, finds his apartment covered in dust and mushrooms, and hypothesizes that the entire town is living the same day over and over. As the school nurse launches an investigation, people gradually begin disappearing from the town until only she and a small group of high schoolers are left.

Still from Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Urusei Yatsura” began as a manga (by Rumiko Takahashi) in 1978 and was adapted as a long-running animated television show in Japan starting in 1981 and ending in 1986. It was also known as “Lum, the Invader Girl,”  titled after its main character, when it played on the BBC. The series incorporated a wide variety of influences and was especially known for mixing science fiction with Japanese folklore. It had an “anything can happen” quality to it; eating mysterious candy might make hearts appear over your head, or one of the characters might find a camera that sent those it photographed to alternate dimensions. Even so, Beautiful Dreamer was a radical departure from the series’ comic formula.
  • Mamoru Oshii worked on 106 episodes of the “Urusei Yatsura” television series and was credited as lead director on two. He is also the credited director on the first Urusei Yatsura movie, For You, but was only brought in after a previous director quit, and considered his work on that film a “rush job.”
  • This excursion departs from the series’ usual focus on Lum and aliens, but is partly inspired by a previous episode of the series, “Wake up to a Nightmare.”
  • Beautiful Dreamer contains many references to the Japanese folk tale Urashima Tarō, about a fisherman who marries a spirit princess and spends what seems like a few years in her kingdom, but returns to his village to find that centuries have passed. This is an old and recurring theme in folk tales, which Washington Irving took as the basis for America’s “Rip Van Winkle.” In Urashima Tarō’s story the fisherman is originally rewarded for rescuing a turtle, which is why there are so many references to turtles in the movie.
  • Beautiful Dreamer also references the baku, a mythological monster who eats dreams and nightmares. It has no Western equivalent.
  • Beautiful Dreamer was Eric Young‘s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The main characters briefly escape Tomobiki on a Harrier jet, only to look back and see that their city rides on a turtle’s back, à la Hindu cosmology.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Nazi tea shop; copyrighted piglet; town on a turtle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beautiful Dreamer co-stars an amorous flying turquoise-haired alien in a tiger-striped bikini. Not only is that not the weirdest thing in the movie, it’s the touchstone of normality in a film that drops the romantic slapstick conventions of the TV series it was adapted from in favor of a mind-bending trip, bearing its characters into dreamlike worlds on the back of a cosmic turtle.


Original trailer for Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer

COMMENTS: What would happen if you took a beloved Japanese Continue reading 354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

CAPSULE: BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001)

Le pacte des loups

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christophe Gans

FEATURING: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, , Émilie Dequenne,

PLOT: It’s 1764 and a vicious monster is terrorizing the French province of Gevaudan; the king sends his foremost naturalist, along with his Iroquois companion, to track down and slay the beast.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Convoluted plot and Matrix-style combat in a period drama do not a Weird Movie make, but darn it if it doesn’t come close.

COMMENTS: When contemplating this wondrously over-the-top film, I was struck (once more) with too many ways to open a review. Perhaps, “Wikipedia informs me that Brotherhood of the Wolf is a ‘French historical action horror film'”; or alternately, “Reader, be warned that along-side the ‘Recommended’ tag slapped at the top should be an as-prominent ‘Ridiculous’ tag.” I’ll settle, instead, on the following: “Baroque ’90s action hits its peak in Christophe Gans’ period drama, Brotherhood of the Wolf.” This movie crams in so many rehashed film techniques that it becomes a gloriously Bruckheimer-Woo-Ritchie-Besson-esque romp through mid-eighteenth century France.

The French Revolution is in full swing, but within minutes we careen back to half a century prior. Two horsemen in the rain approach a gaggle of thugs (dressed in drag) who are harassing an old man and his daughter. Down jumps Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior, and after a bit of slow-motion, quick-cut bandit-thrashing, he remounts and continues his journey with the other rider and soon the two arrive at the castle of Gévaudan’s local aristocrat. Who are these mysterious strangers? Along with Mani is the much-laureled Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a natural philosopher and some-time adventurer, who is determined to solve the mystery of the “Beast of Gévaudan.” What follows involves French-court courtship, martial-arts, French-court politics, a mess of cultists, and even some aristocratic incest. And of course there’s that big wolf monster cutting down the peasantry with impunity.

The stylistic approach Christophe Gans employs is apt for a narrative as convoluted as Brotherhood of the Wolf. Granted, he allows himself one-hundred and forty minutes to spin his yarn, but a miniseries’ worth of characters, events, and twists is jammed therein. The cinematic bombardment is pinned onto the plot bombardment: slo-mo combat set pieces, where one man (typically Iroquois) dispatches the baddies with an unchanging expression; staggered “pan and pause” shots setting things up for some not-so-subtle action foreshadowing; and even a few reverse chromatic effects for no reason other than, “Hey, you know what would look cool?”-ism. Having immersed myself during the ’90s in some of the best action movies the decade had to offer, I saw all their elements distilled in the service of an obscure eighteenth-century wolf legend1)Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.. I was overwhelmed with what could be best described as “smirking nostalgia.”

Alas, while Brotherhood of the Wolf stands as tour-de-force that attains considerable novelty through its impressive derivativeness, it is something of a “weekend warrior” in the realm of weird movies. Gans keeps the movie’s tone turned up throughout the run time, but despite being the director of the second (ever) Certified title, he seems more commercially inclined with this “French historical action horror” romp. But I have no complaints about that what-so-ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory… I would be lying if I did not admit that this is all, in its absurd and overheated way, entertaining.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.

CAPSULE: CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Trey Parker

FEATURING: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, Ian Hardin, John Hegel

PLOT: Alferd Packer and a small band of hopeful gold-rushers lead an ill-fated expedition from Utah to Colorado through the snowy Rocky Mountains. Six walk in; one walks out. It’s also a musical.

Still from Cannibal! the Musical (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The base premise of a comedy-musical about a historic cannibal gold-rusher is certainly attractive enough to watchers of weird. Beyond that, Cannibal! The Musical, while funny and charming, doesn’t shoot for the extremes of weirdness commonly seen on the List. It’s not even the first musical western comedy we’ve reviewed here, and it’s way at the end of the line of movies we’ve considered.

COMMENTS: Fans of the animated franchise “South Park” can already tell you how skilled Trey Parker and Matt Stone are at writing musicals; the theatrical feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a surprising hit with show-stopping numbers, and then “The Book of Mormon” (the play, not the book) cemented their reputation. And of course, black humor is a given with this creative pair. So it’s interesting to see their work on this low-budget production when they were still students at University of Colorado-Boulder, before “South Park” made them famous. It released originally as Alferd Packer: The Musical in 1993 before Troma Entertainment, spiritual peers to Parker/Stone, picked it up for distribution as Cannibal! The Musical.

For a hopeful few seconds it meets the expectation you have for a Troma movie, when the film opens with a deranged cannibal attacking and taking bites out of hapless settlers in the snowy woods. This turns out to be a flashback from a courtroom, circa 1883, where defendant Alferd Packer (Trey Parker) is on trial for murdering his traveling party. Later, in his cell, a local reporter who’s attracted to bad boys goads him into telling her his story, by segue of talking about his horse, Liane. And so we’re swept into the musical tale of the ill-fated Alferd Packer’s Gold Rush expedition in 1874, accompanied by a ragtag band of optimistic hangers-on—teenagers James Humphrey (Matt Stone) and George Noon (Dian Bachar), Mormon priest Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), butcher Frank Miller (Jason McHugh), and twinkle-toed Israel Swan (John Hegel)—none of whom have the slightest clue about gold-mining or surviving treks through the Rockies in the dead of winter.

Of course, for a campy comedy musical, the movie treats the historical Packer’s tale with about as much accuracy as Mel Brooks recounting the Spanish Inquisition. Townspeople and random pioneers on the trail warn the party of grave doom, Indians, and a cyclops (who proves disappointingly un-Harryhausen). The group stays disciplined by putting individuals on time out when things get uncivil. Bad luck haunts the crew in every way from losing the horse (to which Packer will sing an ode) to stumbling into random bear traps, and the crew gets lost enough to chance upon the Grand Canyon on their way from Utah to Colorado. A band of punk-rock trappers taunt the party along the way. Asian kung-fu Indians beset the party. While not a lot makes sense, the story moves at a swift enough clip that you’ll barely mind. Be wary after watching it so you aren’t caught idly singing “Hang the Bastard” in inappropriate contexts.

Formed from the quirky imaginations of the Parker/Stone team, Cannibal! The Musical is an enjoyable romp with plenty of the team’s trademark dark humor. The production at times is patterned after Oklahoma! There’s parody of tropes both musical (songs break down mid-verse as the singers argue about chord theory) and western (“Look at all these teepees we have; because we’re Indians!”), yet despite the gory opening scene there’s barely a whiff of a horror aspect: our Troma expectations fizzle after the first five minutes and don’t rekindle until the final twenty. Considering it was a student effort that started out as a fake trailer for film class before the professor called the team’s bluff, the movie is an excellent, if silly, effort. Its legacy is a cult following, the occasional stage revival, and the introduction of “shpadoinkle” into weirdophile vocabulary. But it only has passing business flirting with the wild west of weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all pretty stupid, but at times, there are refreshingly ludicrous notes that even people old enough to see this movie without a guardian can appreciate. One approach: Imagine the film taking place in South Park animation. If Cartman were ripping that man’s arm off and eating it, it might be cute.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (1998 revival)