Tag Archives: Satanism

CAPSULE: MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

FEATURING: Ann Magnuson, Richmond Arquette, John Waters, , A. J. Benza

PLOT: The final years of the life of perhaps the “Bomb”-est of the Blonde[1] Bombshells is explored through talking heads, archival footage, animation, and a smattering of interpretive dance.

Key art from Mansfield 66/67

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The day may come that someone makes a biographical documentary that is as much of a hyperactive whirlwind of strangeness as was the life of Jayne Mansfield, but today is not that day. Directors Ebersole and Hughes provide instead a rather informative and rather typical movie, albeit one with some eccentric interludes.

COMMENTS: I found it impossible to walk away from a chance to see a movie about the wild final days of Jayne Mansfield, the mega-starlet who was nearly decapitated in a car accident. Her involvement with a local Satanic cult puts her in a category in which few other distinguished Hollywood personages can be found. Opening with an odd choral scene of four singing Mansfield impersonators (of both genders), P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 makes a promise of weird delivery for this weird story. Aside from the singing and dancing scattered throughout the movie, though, the documentary fails on the “weird” side of things.

In the late ’50s through the early ’60s, Mansfield had a string of successes that highlighted her knowingly kitsch persona. With measurements of 44-23-37, it’s somewhat obvious why producers felt at ease putting her on screen: her presence guaranteed, at least, a particular kind of audience. That she was a good actress was all the better, costarring at one point with Hollywood’s primo charmer, Cary Grant. However, she had a problem with saying “yes” too often. She shuffled through husbands and lovers with considerable speed, needing constant attention. This predilection eventually led her into the orbit of the notorious California eccentric, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. However, it wasn’t his theatrical occultism that broke her down, but her affair with her slimy lawyer, Sam Brody, that did the trick. As her film career collapsed, things got worse and worse, until the ill-fated car ride that killed her.

In its attempt to capture the madcap tragedy that ensued from 1966 through 1967, Mansfield 66/67 approaches the documentary genre from left field. Scattered among the talking heads (John Waters being a particular highlight) are performances by a dance troupe enacting, among other events, a damaging romance and her veer toward Satanism. The movie undercuts claims almost as soon as it makes them. Normally, this would be problematic, but it seems that most of Mansfield’s life— both on record and from anecdote—was a bulletin of conflicting information. The rapid pace of her life catches up with her, culminating in the film’s stylistic choice to use cartoons to enact a couple important events. What better way to show how her son got mauled by a lion, or how the mystic Anton LaVey convened with the elements atop a mountain to cast a spell to save the boy?

Shackled to the norms of documentary more than it might care to admit, Mansfield 66/67 isn’t so much weird as endearing. It succeeds famously in its telling of the mad life of Mansfield, but it is anchored far too much in the realism of friend’s reminiscences, academic interpretation, and archival footage. Having to deal with all its factual (if ambiguous) situations, there is little license for flights of fantasy. The oddest thing about Mansfield 66/67 isn’t its intentional delivery, but how it’s so caught up in the whirlwind of its subject’s life that at times it derails itself with narrative detours. Though it does tie in the “66/67” motif of the title, at one point the movie seems to want to be about Anton LaVey. In a way, his story would be a more uplifting one.

Mansfield 66/67 makes its Los Angeles debut this week (on October 25), with scattered screenings to follow. Check their Facebook page for more dates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an oddball hybrid that’s part documentary, part stylistic mish-mash, but wholly celebratory of Mansfield’s often derided ‘blonde bombshell’ image.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival screening)

  1. Despite being a natural brunette. []

CAPSULE: STARRY EYES (2014)

DIRECTED BY:  Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

FEATURING: Alexandra Essoe, Lou Deszeran

PLOT: A struggling young L.A. actress finally gets a callback, but the auditions are increasingly humiliating, and the casting director wears a pentagram…

Still from Starry Eyes (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s got a little bit of backloaded weirdness in its final act, but mostly, it’s just a clever but minor indie horror whose primary impact will be as a calling card for lead actress Alexandra Essoe.

COMMENTS: Starry Eyes‘ script was obviously written by people who have stood up and read lines from an unfamiliar script in an attempt to impress poker-faced executives who silently assess their appearance, talent and general suitability as a human being. The movie makes auditioning feel (at times literally) nightmarish. Starry Eyes really makes you feel Sarah’s objectification as a struggling L.A. actress, and not only in the obvious ways. In fact, her daytime stint in hot pants and cutoff t-shirt at “Big Taters Family Restaurant” is less humiliating than the auditions she attends. The “Big Taters” subplot is interesting, because breastaurant waitressing is presented as a more honest and, in a way, honorable line of work than acting; her boss may ogle her, but he actually gives her good advice, whereas the casting agents are arrogant procurers who shamelessly leverage her starlet ambitions. Food service just wants her for body, but the movie industry wants her soul.

Astraeus Pictures not only makes B-movies, but they are staffed entirely by renegades from a low budget horror set. The bow-tied assistant casting director is fey and over-enunciates; his female superior is severe and androgynous, like a patrician riding instructor or a warden at a women’s prison. The producer himself has the studied smile, raised eyebrows and smarmy positivity of an overeager motivational speaker, or a hammy horror movie villain. Essoe’s performance, by contrast, is totally naturalistic, and extremely intense when anxiety attacks make her tear the hair out of her head in bloody clumps. The campiness of the moguls’ portrayals is a deliberate attempt to make them seem strange and artificial (and even hypocritical, since they demand authenticity from the auditionees they torment).

Sill, reasonable aesthetic choice though it may be, I think the hammy performances from the Hollywood phonies are a bit overplayed. The other major detractor from a generally solid horror outing is the weak second act, where Sarah spends too much time hanging out with her indie filmmaking friends. These digressions set up a necessary contrast between the creative freedom of the poor artsy types and the corporate bondage offered by Astraeus, but they don’t do favors for the pacing. Fortunately, the final act takes a turn into ian body horror, as Sarah transforms from a nobody wannabe into one of  Hollywood’s merciless bloodthirsty elites. “Dreams require sacrifice,” taunts the producer. The idea of selling your soul for a starring role isn’t a new or original one, but Starry Eyes is effective because it’s made by people who understand the agony and temptation of the quest for stardom from the inside.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

a mumblegore Mulholland Dr., following a would-be startlet’s (self-)destructive fugue through the dreamworld of Tinsel Town.”–Anton Bitel, Grolsch Film Works (contemporaneous)

178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Peter Allison: “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.”

Dr. Vitus Werdegast: “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”–The Black Cat

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund

PLOT: A rainy night and roadside accident lands WWI veteran Dr. Vitus Werdegast and a honeymooning couple to the old dark house of Satanist Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig, a mass murderer guilty of war crimes, is also Werdegast’ s longtime nemesis. Werdegast is sworn to revenge, but must also protect the couple from being sacrified at a Black Mass.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
BACKGROUND:

  • In his native Hungary, Lugosi had often played romantic leads. Typecast since Dracula (1931), Lugosi was initially enthusiastic about taking on the role of Werdegast. However, upon seeing the script and discovering that his beloved “protagonist” raped the heroine, The Black Cat became a career nightmare for the actor. Adding to the onset tension was Lugosi’s increasing jealousy of Karloff. In an interview with author Gregory Mank, Ulmer’s widow, Shirley Ulmer, related that Karloff and her late husband were kindred, erudite spirits. The two often engaged in discussions ranging from art to philosophy and film aesthetics. Lugosi, who was no intellectual heavyweight, felt the odd man out. Threatened by his genre rival, Lugosi resorted to lurid anecdotes for attention, even claiming that he had once been a Hungarian hangman. Naturally, such yarn spinning only served to further distance Lugosi from his peers.
  • According to Mank, Lugosi got increasingly excited at the prospect of “skinning” his rival. Multiple takes were required and, in each take, Lugosi’s English became even more rushed and indecipherable. Many years later, Karloff advised impressionist Rich Little to watch the skinning scene from The Black Cat, in order to mimic Lugosi’s idiosyncratic vocalizations: “Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’sh what I’m going to do to you now. Vear the skin from your body, shlowly, bit by bit.” Karloff’s infamous lisp, at its most pronounced here, parallels Lugosi’s language mangling. Reportedly, Lugosi, of all people, consistently ridiculed Karloff’s speech impediment.
  • Among the excised scenes were the afore mentioned rape, a scene of Joan Allison actually transforming into a black cat, and shots of Karloff’s skinned Poelzig, crawling on the floor with bloodied, flayed flesh hanging off his frame. Awkward comedy relief and embarrassing scenes depicting Werdegast’s fear of black cats were added, along with a slightly more traditionally heroic shaping of Lugosi’s character.
  • Ulmer drew his inspiration for Poelzig from two sources: first, the German architect and leading member of the avant garde architectural society “Der Ring,” Hans Poelzig. Polezig’s work was an eccentric mix of Gothic and Noveua, filtered through very personal sensibilities. Second was the infamous Satanist and misogynist Aleister Crowley, whose concupiscent philosophy is expressed by his motto “I rave and I rape and I rip and I rend.” Ulmer grafts those two identification points into a First World War backstory. Ulmer had additional influence here as well: his father was one of the countless European victims in the Great War.
  • Ulmer doubled as set designer and imbued the film with Bauhaus sensibilities.
  • Ulmer should have been Universal’s third iconic horror director, directly behind  and . Like those contemporaries, Ulmer had enough personal vision to elevate a pedestrian seed into something unique. Unfortunately, Ulmer broke a basic rule: He had an affair with his boss’ wife, which lead to his being fired and blacklisted by major studios. Although Ulmer was offered a chance to direct a big budget Shirley Temple musical for Fox, he turned down the offer, choosing instead to makepoverty row quickies for  PRC, where he languished for the rest of his career. Most of  his films are saddled with execrable scripts, and despite a cult following in France, Ulmer’s ultimate artistic merit is speculative.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the roadside accident, Vitus Werdegast and company arrive at Hjalmar Poelzig’s mansion. Ulmer’s camera jerkily climbs the deco stairs. The light from a radio blinks. Through cracks and clicks, Poelzig’s manservant announces: “Dr. Werdegast has arrived.” Poelzig’s wife lies asleep in bed; a half nude vision of purest white. Next to her lies the blackened silhouette of Polezig. Upon hearing the voice of his servant, Poelzig awakes, clicks on a light, and sits straight up. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see the image for what it is; a blatantly erect phallus. Polezig rises and walks menacingly toward the bedroom door, seen through the sheer curtain of a canopy bed. He is a phallic symbol as harbinger of death. Sex and death awash in starkly cubist black and white, and dramatic classical music. Poelzig’s wife is also his step-daughter, and Werdegast’ daughter. Werdegast waits below, suspicious but not completely aware of the incestuous milieu permeating Polezig’s fortress.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Despite a checklist of outré taboos, The Black Cat, partly due to studio tampering, is characterized by subdued aesthetics. Rather than conveying grotesquerie and perversity through blood-soaked Poe-like dungeons, which would be the pedestrian route, Ulmer crafts a very personal restlessness through the icy tents of modernism, futurism, highly stylized acting, and artistic music. While this may make it a challenge for contemporary viewers, it renders this tale of revenge, lust and paranoia even weirder.


Fan made trailer for The Black Cat (by David Smith)

COMMENTS: For the first team-up of Universal’s horror stars, Karloff and Lugosi, uncredited producer Carl Laemmle Jr. virtually gave director Edgar G. Continue reading 178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

CAPSULE: THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Dee Wallace, , Judy Geeson

PLOT: An overnight DJ is drawn into a web of witchcraft when she plays a mysterious record.

Still from The Lords of Salem (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird, to be sure, but it’s not weird enough to make us forgive all of the script’s missteps. I saw Salem in a theater with a quartet of teenagers as the only other patrons in the audience. They were far more thrilled by the Iron Man 3 trailer, which made the girls and boys alike squeal with delight. They were less impressed by this movie: one of them complained afterwards that it wasn’t even a “horror movie” (what kind of movie she thought it was, if not horror, I didn’t overhear). Yet, they stayed through the entire thing. If you can’t get teenagers who think Iron Man 3 looks awesome to walk out on your movie, then I’m afraid you haven’t made it weird enough to make the List.

COMMENTS: The Lords of Salem wants to be a rock and roll Rosemary’s Baby, but most of the time it’s just a bunch of dream sequences floating around in space, looking for a movie to latch on to. Of course, 366 Weird Movies doesn’t object to the use of dream sequences—hell, make your entire movie one long dream sequence and we’ll eat it up—but we do object to the clumsy, clichéd fashion in which they are handled here. If you’ve seen a horror movie before, you know the kind we’re talking about: everything seems normal and then suddenly the protagonist sees some dreadful apparition, bony fingers reach towards her neck, and then—poof!—she wakes up, it was all a dream. Do it once, and you’re just relying on a genre convention. Do it twice, and the audience may start to get annoyed. But play this trick three times or more, as Salem does, and you’ve broken a bond of trust between viewer and director. But let’s back up for a moment. These recurring hallucinations take up most of the pictures second act. The first act sets up the essential story: DJ Heidi lives alone with a dog in a Salem, Massachusetts apartment. Played by Sheri Moon Zombie, Heidi is unglamorous: skinny like a junkie, with bad tattoos, blond dreadlocks and hipster glasses. (Despite what you may have heard, her acting is not bad; the character is just underdeveloped. It was created in makeup and wardrobe, not in the script). Heidi interviews an expert on the Salem witch trials (for some reason, the late night classic rock show she co-hosts invites only Satanism-related guests) who provides historical background on local witchcraft cults. Then she receives a mysterious LP record, plays it on the air, and we drift into that seemingly never-ending series of dreams inside dreams which serve no plot purpose, but only showcase the director’s ability to construct a fake scare scene. Although it turns out all those second-act hallucinations (including a nasty bit involving a priest) were just padding, the story starts to improve in the third act, when three villainous witches start actively corrupting events. As the end draws near, the hallucination sequences become both more intense and more meaningful. Directed by the delightfully nasty and foul-mouthed hag trio, they take on a purposeful ritualistic character that makes it clear (well, somewhat clear) what’s going on with Heidi. The scenes turn operatic as Heidi’s efficiency apartment transforms into a grand ballroom. We meet a wonderfully creepy fetus-looking demon with a bifurcated umbilical cord who’s up to no good. And Rob Zombie goes all-out crazy in the final moments, creating a grand surrealistic horror montage that’s reminiscent of the kind of psychedelic apocalypses was putting up on big screens in the 1980s. The bottom line is I can’t recommend, or recommend avoiding, watching Lords of Salem. If you go you’ll see a fairly standard horror movie setup, a muddled middle, and an ambitious ending; you’ll see demons of every shape and size (including one looks like Chewbacca), corpses and rats and goats, psychedelic effects, blasphemous Satanic sex rituals, nude hags, cameos by minor genre icons like Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn (the credits say  and  are in there somewhere too, though I didn’t spot them), and Sheri Moon’s skinny butt. If that kind of hodgepodge sounds it worth it to you, and you don’t need a coherent story or artistic vision to tie it all together, than by all means have at it.

Rob Zombie is a difficult director to get a handle on. On the one hand, he is almost certainly the most talented director to ever bear the name “Zombie.” On the other hand, each of his movies contain moments of visionary inspiration marred by deep flaws and missteps. He displays the aesthetic sensibilities of an Iron Maiden album cover combined with an overweening sense of self-importance (his rambling, half-mad director’s statement claims that “only the goat knows free will” and warns against some “dangerous old conceptual fiction so near to the silver screen”). He’s a true American weirdo for our sick times.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film eventually abandons psychological subtlety for hallucinatory garishness, which is too bad.”–Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WEIRDSVILLE (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Allan Moyle

FEATURING: Scott Speedman, Wes Bentley, Greg Bryk, Maggie Castle, Taryn Manning, Jordan Prentice

PLOT: Two junkies, who are planning a heist to pay off a mobster, clash with Satanists when they interrupt a ritual while burying an overdosed friend.

Still from Weirdsville (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite sucking up to us by putting “weird” right there in the title, Weirdsville isn’t strange enough to belong on a list of the weirdest movies of all time. There are a few very mild drug trip sequences, but the rest of the film never rises above the level of aggressively quirky.

COMMENTS: A stoned caper comedy starring two (relatively) lovable polydrug abusers, Weirdsville wants to be the second coming of The Big Lebowski. And while it’s great for a screenwriter to set his sights high, Weirdsville ultimately tries too hard, forcing the quirk; it’s still a fun ride, but it overplays its bid for classic status. Speedman (playing Dexter, the “quiet, introspective one”) and Bentley (as Royce, “the ideas man”—i.e. the village idiot) share a believable buddy chemistry, based on in-jokes and stories they’ve been repeating to each other in the endless lazy, hazy days since high school. No matter how much Royce annoys the more cerebral Dexter, he’s devoted to his drug-dazed pal, despite the fact that Royce’s blunders keep complicating the plot and frustrating his own plans to kick junk. (Despite being prominently billed, Taryn Manning’s part-time hooker Mattie is little more than a third wheel and a plot point). The movie builds well for the first two acts. The twin storylines of drug debt owed to vicious mobster Omar and an accidental overdose that leads to an encounter with preppy Satanists entwine to create a desperate situation for our two unlikely heroes. This in turn leads to an ill-advised burglary, complicated when its interrupted by a teenage housesitter and by the constant pursuit of the duo by angry drug dealers and Satanists. So far, so good; Weirdsville is building a crazy tension, relieving it with bouts of goofy hipster dialogue and indie rock interludes, then ramping it up again. But Weirdsville steps over the line from pleasantly quirky to desperate to be different with the introduction of a new character, a dwarf security guard. Now, the judicious use of dwarfs and midgets is one of the most difficult calls for a director to make. On the one hand there’s a long and distinguished tradition of using dwarfs in comedy, dating all the way back to the days of medieval jesters. But putting a “little person” in an unexpected role—like a security guard—is by now almost a cliché, and the gambit risks looking gimmicky and exploitative. Here, the dwarf is not only a mall cop, but also a medieval re-enactor with a gang of chainmailed cronies who are all also of sub-average stature; for me, when these guys show up swinging mini-morningstars, the movie, which had been toying with greatness, jumps the quirky shark. It’s still fun right up to the end, but any shot at greatness has been botched. In the end, the most memorable bits go to the well-heeled, straight-edge Satanists, who end up whining “Lucifer is supposed to be helping us, not plaguing us with midgets and junkies!” That line pretty much sums up the movie; if Satanists plagued by midgets and junkies sounds like your kind of scene, you’ll probably enjoy Weirdsville.

Director Allan Moyle is best known for Pump Up the Volume (1990), a cult hit among 90s teens starring Christian Slater as a high school pirate radio operator.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some of it is funny-weird, but too much is pointlessly weird.”–Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Billy,” who argued that this “movie has zombies, drugs and midgets in it. Can’t get much weirder than that.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FEVER NIGHT AKA BAND OF SATANIC OUTSIDERS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jordan Harris, Andrew Schrader

FEATURING: Peter Tullio, Philip Marlatt, Melanie Wilson

PLOT: Three young would-be occultists head to the woods to perform a Satanic ritual and (not surprisingly) get more than they bargained for.

Still from Fever Night AKA Band of Satanic Outsiders (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s got a few great psychedelic/Satanic sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a black metal music video, but overall it’s not strong enough to contend as one of the best weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS: The soundtrack to Fever Night AKA Band of Satanic Outsiders is made up of grungy psychedelic garage rock rather than the black/death metal stylings the flick’s devil-worshiping premise would lead you to expect. This movie is full of small stylistic surprises like that, along with some big bombastic ones. Fever Night starts with a humorous mock disclaimer implying that you’re watching a videocassette, then segues to the words “BAD PEOPLE” spelled out in squirming worms, followed by voice-overs of the main characters as they argue over what is the most Satanic meat (“so, Satan’s a goat? I always thought Satan was a pig”). We then see our three occult protagonists and get our next shock: these are some clean-cut cultists. Warren wears a tie, Elliot sports a red letterman’s jacket, and cute Terry has a wholesome Katie Holmes thing going on. These are the best-groomed Satanic outsiders you’ll ever meet, Satanic outsiders you wouldn’t be afraid to bring home to Mom for dinner. It’s an intriguingly strange setup, but I’m afraid the rest of the movie can’t quite deliver on that promise. The three teens go into the woods, conduct their blood-drinking ritual, and then one of them falls into a coma; the next half-hour is composed of ersatz Blair Witch Project wanderings in the woods, with disappearing bodies, mysterious bird carcasses, and interpersonal squabblings. This is where Fever Night lost me. While it would be creepy to be caught out in the woods with unexplained spooky sounds and distant lights accosting you at every step, it’s not nearly as scary to watch the same things happen to amateur actors bathed in stage lights (that’s exactly why the aforementioned Witch Project put everything in the first person perspective). Fortunately, the discovery of a bleeding cow skull leads to an explosive psychedelic montage full of solarization effects and rapid-fire editing of full of flying animal skulls and pentagrams (and I swear I caught an almost subliminal still of the Devil from Häxan). The film’s next two acts are devoted to killing off the remaining two characters (although whether they remain dead is up for debate) via devilish tableaux that incorporate camping nymphettes, redneck rapists, animal-headed individuals, more fast-cutting music video audition interludes, revenants, and protagonists sucked into the sky and incorporated into nebulae. Psychologically relevant homophobia pervades the ironic horror denouements, making Fever Night especially uncomfortable for the target audience of young heterosexual males. Fever Night is a weak tab, but it does have detectable psychotronic activity. If I were looking for a lysergic campfire movie for the weekend, I’d drop a big dose of I Can See You instead.

Fever Night AKA Band of Satanic Outsiders (which, by the way, is the actual onscreen title, AKA and all) truly divides viewers. On the one hand, the average horror fan, the kind who post one to two sentence reviews on IMDB, Amazon or Netflix and favor the word “suck,” tends to hate the movie both for its slow opening and for the surreal confusion of its ending. The horror press, on the other hand, was effusive in its praise (given the dreck that passes for low-budget independent horror, you have to understand how fresh anything that’s even a little bit different will appear to anyone confined to the blood beat). Personally I didn’t enjoy Fever Night very much and even considered giving it a “Beware” rating, but I do see a lot of its strengths, and won’t recommend against it. Ironically, most of the positive reviews liked the structured first part of the movie the best, and thought that the flick went off the rails when the hallucinations and surrealism started taking over. My criticism was exactly the opposite: I wish the directors had moved more of the trippy goodies up front. My interest waned while the movie wandered around in the woods, jumping at every snapping twig, and the movie never really pulled me all the way back in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like an acid trip riff on ’70s Luciferian classics like The Devil’s Rain and Race with the Devil… a fiesty, surprisingly funny, and very stylish offering that deftly sidesteps the usual pitfalls of boring camerawork and amateurish performances.”–Mondo Digital (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SLAUGHTERED VOMIT DOLLS (2006)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:  Lucifer Valentine

FEATURING:  Ameara Lavey, Pig Lizzy, Maja Lee

PLOT: A bulimic teen makes a pact with the devil in this nonsensical odyssey of ICK!

Still from Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite it’s feature length and small cult following, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is not really a movie at all, just a collage of clips. It was not structured to make any sort of sense, nor does it seem intended to be taken seriously. Regrettably, there does not appear to have been enough thought behind it to consider that it might be a joke on the audience, as was the case with Andy Warhol‘s notorious Sleep (1963).  Of course, I wanted to write about it as a joke. I was going to begin with an intro stating something to the effect that I always try to recommend good cinema. But my conscience won’t let me play that joke on you. The movie is really that bad.

COMMENTS: Abused teen Angela flees home, is sheltered by a lecherous priest, and sexually exploited by all she meets. Think Candy (1968), by Christian Marquand and Buck Henry, based on Terry (Dr. Strangelove) Southern’s novelized parody of Voltaire’s Candide. Only with mangled vignettes, jump cuts, smash cuts, blood, simulated violence, gore, heaving breasts, full frontal nudity, incoherent babbling, dancing bears, Nazism, and of course vomit. Lots of it. Minus the clever plot of Candy. OK, just kidding about the dancing bears and Nazism, but suffice it to say, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls makes Doors lead singer Jim Morrison’s UCLA film studies student project look like Citizen Kane.

Anyway, back to the “plot” (or lack of it). Drug addicted, alcoholic, and repeatedly used as a sexual bucket, a fed-up Angela refutes all worldly good and makes a pact with Satan in return for His protection. It doesn’t work out well. After setting fire to the priest’s church, Angela descends into stripping and prostitution, spiraling ever more furiously hell-bound, with lots of blood, gore, heaving breasts, full frontal nudity, vomit of course, and—oh wait, we already covered that.

Yup. That’s about it. Eye gouge scenes, raving girls rolling on the floor in religious mania, and naked strippers whom Valentine recruited from the local roadhouse. Hot, deranged, tormented, supple, quivering naked strippers covered with red corn syrup, sticking their fingers down their throats and retching on a glass table positioned over an upturned camera.

Apparently Lucifer Valentine is a film student with access to cameras, lights, makeup, and little in the way of clever ideas. He set out to make the ultimate work of shock value pop “art.” As pop “art,” it does indeed reflect abstract expressionism via a survey of superficial contemporary counter-cultural values: sex, drugs, rock and roll, violence, and nihilism. But so does a drive though Southeast LA. Valentine certainly succeeded in making the most deliberately offensive, ridiculous, non-nonsensical picture he could.

Only my most proudly deviant weirdo friends will want to see Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, the first entry in Valentine’s Vomit Gore Trilogy. (Yes, that’s right, there are three of these movies. The next two entries are the 2009 ReGOREgitated Sacrifice, and Slow Torture Puke Chamber [2010]). Yow!

All others avoid at all costs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…everything on display here (including its at times ‘film-school-esque’ execution) seems all to deliberate. How can we shock? How can we be disgusting? How can we seem weird? How can we gain attention? When your viewer feels as if you were asking these questions during the ‘creative’ process, much of its potential integrity and/or effectiveness is lost.”–Lawrence P. Raffel, Monsters at Play (DVD)


Scenes from Slaughtered Vomit Dolls

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edgar G. Ulmer

FEATURING: , Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A young couple find themselves caught between the machinations of a doctor bent on revenge and a mad engineer in the latter’s Art Deco mansion, built on the graves of the soldiers he sold out in a World War I battle.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEThe Black Cat has the cadence of a nightmare.  Its shadows haunt the mind long after the DVD clatters out of the tray. Still, as impressive as the movie’s evocation of corruption masked by civility is, it’s highly creepy but only mildly weird; it remains to be seen whether it’s eccentric excellence will overcome it’s somewhat suspect surreality and catapult it onto the List.

COMMENTS:  Today, The Black Cat looks like a cult film.  In the popular memory it’s almost never mentioned alongside the Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), but “those in the know” sing its praises to the uninitiated: The Black Cat is a forgotten Expressionist classic, too cool for the masses, a film that had to be resurrected from oblivion by the cinematic savants at Cahiers du Cinema who recognized its neglected genius.  Truth be told, however, The Black Cat, which teamed up terror titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time, was a huge box office hit in 1934.  Despite reviews from The New York Times, Variety,and Time that ranged from dismissive to near-scathing, the film was a blockbuster, Universal’s highest-grossing release of the year.  Through modern eyes—with its daring pre-code perversity and its disjointed, dreamlike rhythms—The Black Cat looks like an ahead-of-its-time oddity we assume musty old timers would have misunderstood, but perhaps audiences in 1934 were hipper than we give them credit for.

At the time, the two rising horror stars were the main draw, and they acquit themselves admirably.  Returning to wreak revenge on the man who wronged him after spending 15 years in a WWI prisoner-of-war camp, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast makes an unlikely, suspect hero.  He’s a raw and damaged bundle of obsessions and phobias hidden underneath a suave, aristocratic exterior and filtered through a thick Hungarian accent.  Lugosi has his impressive moments, as when he loses his mind (and, temporarily, his grasp of the English language) in the film’s startling climax, but Karloff outshines him, turning in one of his finest performances as villainous architect Hjalmar Poelzig.  Initially glimpsed as a menacing shadow rising mechanically from his bed, when he steps into the light we see a frowning, grim faced man with a diabolically angular haircut, draped in black robes.  Karloff’s every motion is cold and calculated, detached and almost inhuman: he hangs back, animated only by the occasional spasm of evil (as when he reveals his hidden lust for the heroine by thrusting forth his hand and tightly gripping a nude figurine in the foreground while watching her kiss her husband).

Vitus and Poelzig play a cat-and-mouse game, dramatically demonstrated in an oddly conceived chess match for the soul of the heroine.  The backdrop before which they fence—Poelzig’s gleaming Bauhaus mansion, full of odd angles, deep shadows, and hidden rooms, including one with twisted crosses and jutting angular pillars before which he conducts his rites dedicated to Lucifer—lends their jousting an aura of  strangeness.  Karloff’s haircut is almost an Expressionist set of its own.  There’s no literary connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological horror story “The Black Cat,” but the beautiful, flitting imagery and tone of repressed evil evokes Poe’s opiated style, and there is a literal black cat who pops up inexplicably on occasion, almost as an afterthought, to terrify the phobic Lugosi.

The Black Cat is full of arresting images: corpses preserved and encased in glass boxes, Lugosi recoiling before the giant shadow of the black cat, Karloff conducting a Black Mass.  The plot, on the other hand, is fragmented; it lurches forward without clear explanation  (the company hardly reacts when Lugosi launches a conveniently placed throwing knife at the pesky feline; the unexplained swoon of a female Satanist allows Lugosi to turn the tables on Karloff).   At one point Poelzig asks Vitus, “of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?,” a question he could well address to the movie itself.  The answer, of course, is to provide pure atmosphere: an atmosphere of psychic repression and elegant perversity, full of hints of necrophilia, sex slavery, incest, mass murder, and other European decadences.  The combination of powerful images and loose narrative connections gives the film a choppy, nightmarish feel that works even better in the memory than it does while you are watching it, and accounts for the weird feeling The Black Cat generates in susceptible viewers.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed under F.W. Murnau and worked as an uncredited set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, among other projects.  Set to be a big name helmer after the success of The Black Cat, rumor has it that Ulmer indulged in an affair with the wife of a powerful Universal producer and was exiled to the poverty row studio PRC.  There, he turned out workmanlike B-movies with titles like Girls in Chains and Isle of Forgotten Sins before creating another minor classic, the grimy and effective low-budget noir Detour (1945).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…nutty, nightmarish melange… a crepehanger’s ball.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

For another opinion and further background on the film, see Alfred Eaker’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Edgar G. Ulmer has a cult reputation, particularly in France. The late British film critic, Leslie Halliwell, believed that reputation to be wholly undeserved, since most of Ulmer’s films ranged from B to Z status. Ulmer did not begin that way when, in 1934, he was handed “complete freedom” in an A (A-) production, teaming, for the first time, Universal Studio’s reigning horror stars Bela Lugosi and in the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired The Black Cat. The resulting film, and Ulmer’s affair with his employer’s wife, quickly ended a promising top-notch studio career almost as quickly as it began.

This first Karloff/Lugosi teaming was also their best. That is because of their eight collaborations this was their only joint-starring project directed by a visionary auteur. In The Black Cat Lugosi was cast as protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, and Karloff as antagonist Hjalmer Poelzig. In the original, uncut film, Lugosi’s hero does some less than heroic things. Enough of Vitus’ sinister quality remains that Lugosi gives us a hero we are never quite comfortable with. Under Ulmer’s direction, Lugosi’s performance is superb, an extreme rarity for this actor. As good as Lugosi is, Karloff is even better and, as unpopular as it may be to say now, Karloff was always a far better actor than his co-star.

Ulmer’s “complete freedom” came to a screeching halt when universal execs saw the filmed footage and script. Lugosi’s hero rapes the heroine, the heroine occasionally turns into a black cat, and Karloff’s Poelzig is skinned alive and last seen crawling on the floor with his skin hanging from his body as Lugosi’s mad hero laughs hysterically. All of these scenes were cut from the film and, par the course at that time, were destroyed. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the scenes were shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.
Still from The Black Cat (1934)
Regardless, what remains of The Black Cat is a flawed, baroque masterpiece, intoxicating to watch and simultaneously frustrating, especially in light of Ulmer’s original intent. Lugosi’s Hungarian psychiatrist Vitus is traveling by train, and he is on a journey of revenge and retaliation. Vitus meets two newlyweds—American novelist Peter Alison and his wife Joan (played by David Manners and Jaqueline Wells)—who are as bland a 30s couple as one is likely to find. Lugosi sees something in the young woman Joan and touches her hair as she sleeps. The Hays Code be damned, it’s an erotic, Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)