Tag Archives: Surrealism

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: MAD GOD

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DIRECTED BY: Phil Tippett

FEATURING: Niketa Roman,

PLOT: An explorer descends into the depths with the mission to destroy God.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Drawing inspiration from Ray Harryhausen and the Brothers Quay, as well as siphoning the theological-cinematic marrow of E. Elias Merhige, Phil Tippett has created a stop-motion nightmare of such scale and unrelenting viciousness that it turns the corner into the darkly poetic.

COMMENTS: Words nearly fail me. I could go on at length about Mad God‘s technical wizardry and the staggering horror of  its vision. The soundscape is calculated for maximum unpleasantness. The entities populating the Hellish layers are the nastiest collection of putrescent malevolence this side of the imagination. Whatever message there may be here is of the utmost nihilistic hideousness. Myriad paragraphs could be spun going over all the elements Phil Tippett has created for this trial of a film, but mere text cannot convey the goings-on in Mad God. I’ve seen torture porn; this movie is nothing short of torment porn.

Babel is destroyed, and what follows is a vision of mankind, had he defied the warnings of Leviticus 26: 27-33. Man survives, as he must and as he can. An explorer in a capsule descends past a skyscraper guarded by flak cannons. He is armored and equipped with a map and a briefcase. And he witnesses Hell on Earth as he travels, passing defecating guardian beasts. Wispy humanoids are stamped in a press and sent off to labor on a giant apparatus, burnt to crisps, crushed under steam-rollers, and splattered by the dark monoliths they have been tasked to create. Down and further down continues the explorer, map disintegrating, briefcase clutched in hand. Inside is a bomb, and with it the hope of destroying this God and what he has wrought. He reaches the bottom, on which rest innumerable heaps of other briefcases. And he sets the timer…

It may be best for me to describe the few moments of comparative ease on display. A doll-like human woman passes her time masturbating; a nurse has the luxury of a pillow to lay upon; and somewhere in God’s alchemical laboratory there exists a carefree group of DayGlo beings who sup daintily on maggots. And that is all I can think of. Of course, each instance has caveats: the doll-like woman is imprisoned; the nurse must facilitate a ghastly human-emptying surgery for each delivery of an ungainly foetus to be handed unto God; and the DayGlo cavorters are intermittently snatched up and eaten by beasts for the alchemist’s amusement.

There is a timelessness to Mad God, explained not just by its lack of dialogue and grandness of the vision. This project took Tippett thirty-three years to complete. Every crushed human, every organ tossed idly aside, and every burst of goo and shit—it all leads to a dispiriting rejoinder to 2001: A Space Odyssey. When God is fed the dust of the infant, he spews forth black monoliths into the cosmos, infecting neighboring worlds. The abominations on display here are beyond most people’s utterance, and you may be tempted to flee, but Mad God ends on an odd note that ever-so-slightly tempers the despair: another explorer, with another briefcase, is sent down for another attempt.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tippett’s odyssey, equally compelling and off-putting, enmeshes the viewer in a maximalist excess not too formally different from the likes of Flying Lotus’ trippily mutated Kuso, abetting its dream logic with lurid visions of the scatological and profane.”–Morris Yang, In Review Online (festival screening)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: HOTEL POSEIDON (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Stefan Lernous

FEATURING: Tom Vermeir, Anneke Sluiters

PLOT: The reluctant owner of a decrepit hotel deals with an incoherent nightmare of sultry guests, a sketchy pal who’s turning the ballroom into a happening nightclub, and a “sick” aunt.

Still from Hotel Poseidon (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Although it may be lacking in narrative, if a movie can be honored as one of the weirdest ever made based purely on art direction, Hotel Poseidon is a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: Hotel Poseidon is where you go if you die in Hotel Earle and your soul can’t find its way to Heaven. The building looks like it’s been underwater for fifty years and has only recently surfaced: the daily mail arrives already soaked and caked in mud, electrical fires are so frequent they’ve become only a minor annoyance, and the lobby is so cavernous that at first you don’t even notice the body tucked away in the corner. The visual sensibility is dingy, dirty and grungy, and you half expect to see a strand of seaweed fall across the lens every now and then. The Hotel is the main character, while lead actor Tom Vermeir, in the role of depressive and put-upon owner Dave, acts as its sad-sack sidekick. Hotel Poseidon is a crumbling edifice waiting for a movie worthy of its magnificent setting—a movie that, unfortunately, never arrives.

Though Hotel Poseidon doesn’t have much story to tell, it does feature two exhibitions of inspired camerawork to showcase its astonishing set. The first is the opening shot, a spiraling pan around the hotel lobby which starts on a dead fish in a half-empty tank and spins around to survey the room’s clutter of decrepit knickknacks, peeling wallpaper, dying plants, malfunctioning equipment, and unattended fires, giving you a sense of the purgatorial landscape you’ll be inhabiting for the next ninety minutes. The other lasts for about four minutes, as the camera weaves through Dave’s encounters with the pasty-faced grotesques attending some sort of prom of the living dead that’s broken out in his newly-renovated ballroom, a sequence that somehow involves him winding up on an autopsy table before escaping into the elevator; it’s the capper to a succession intricately-choreographed shots that comprise the central “party” sequence,  the film’s best segment (which could have been a winner as a standalone short film).

If this all sounds pretty weird to you, then you’re not wrong. Hotel Poseidon trends towards a “” tag. And, in terms of art direction and cinematography, the movie is far above normal standards. Unfortunately, it succumbs to a common ailment afflicting full-length surrealist features: a failure to provide a meaningful plot structure, thematic tissue, or characters we are capable of empathizing with. There is no real story, and the few recurring subplots—a sexy young visitor who insists on renting a room despite being told the hotel is permanently closed, Dave’s ailing aunt and her pension—-circle a clogged drain for ninety minutes before the film ends up back where it started. Hotel Poseidon is simply a long succession of unsettling scenes in a common setting, many of which work on an individual level, but fail to build upon each other, leading only to a downbeat experience that’s too one-note to support the film’s length. Hotel Poseidon is the first film venture financed by the Belgian avant-garde theater company Abbatoir Fermé, and there there is great talent involved; but the technique and atmosphere languish because the film doesn’t give us much reason to care what happens to its characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a celebration of the weird, the absurd and the surreal, constantly adding new layers of wonder, forcing its audience to sit back in submission and let the film wash over them.”–Niels Matthijs, Onderhond (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COUNTRY OF HOTELS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Julio Maria Martino

FEATURING: Adam Leese, Siobhan Hewlett, Matthew Leitch, Michael Lawrence, Charles Pike, Ben Shafik, Sabrina Faroldi, Mia Soteriou

PLOT: Strange fates await the tenants of room 508 of an unnamed hotel in Palatine, Illinois.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This film’s unsettling aura lingers in the mind like stale cigarette smoke in a shabby hotel room. Three vignettes are showcased in the fifth-floor room of one of those Lynchian establishments found on the outskirts of Somewhere, USA. The staff are friendly enough, but beware the ever-morphing wall art.

COMMENTS: Duplicity, madness, and haziness linger beyond the portal in Country of Hotels. From within, above, and through its peephole, room 508 allows a glance into some very private, and pleasantly disconcerting, vignettes. The hotel’s staff provide not only room cleaning and story-framing services, they punctuate each morality tale with what I can best describe as fairy tale justice.

Each scenario shows the surface of what’s going on, but never what’s really going on. In the first, it’s obvious that Roger and Brenda shouldn’t be screwing each other: Roger’s married, and Brenda is his wife’s best friend. But who’s messing with the room electronics? How did Roger’s blabbermouth coworker also end up in this nowhere hotel that same day? And why can Roger watch himself making love? Subsequently, we see why Pauly’s on the verge of collapse: he’s always sent on stupid assignments because he’s smart, and he burns through calories at a medically alarming rate. But for what audience is he recording his addled videos? What voice is tormenting him nightly via the air-conditioning duct? And why is he so itchy? And finally, Derek is drunk as hell after a rock show, awaiting Brenda; Vic the photographer, replete with bolo tie and comb-over, and greased in lies and grievance, comes asking after her. But how long has Derek been here? What’s Vic’s actual relationship with Brenda? And how did that stuffed animal panda travel from the hotel room into the TV broadcast?

Of the many questions that pop up, the most mysterious—and most satisfying—is, what is up with that painting? It hangs on the wall, innocuous. Another “warehouse print,” as Pauly bitches to his laptop camera. It changes subtly after each visitor’s departure, moving the gravedigging figure that looks remarkably similar to Sammy, the hotel handyman. He’s an immigrant with an unspecified accent, and is perhaps related to the unflappable hostess who commands the lobby; the Stetson-topped patriarch who never rises from his wheelchair; and the flinchingly obsequious chamber maid. Their relationship with room 508 is one of understanding if not comprehension; they have a notion of its doings, but appear to be little more than passive facilitators of its nebulous whims.

Country of Hotels nails the look as well as the stories, a look ripped from over half a century ago—further back, if you include the room’s pastoral artwork. Disorienting geometry glazes 508’s walls with headache-inducing tessellation. When the bulbs aren’t flickering, the lights are always too bright. And the muted palette pairs nicely with the languidly loping score, transmuting a potentially sing-song tedium into an icky sub-natural space like you might find in a latter-day Hotel Earle. This is an uncomfortable movie peopled by sorry examples of humanity and supported by a stolid band of genial foreigners. The staff provide the film’s comic relief, pathos, and its most important moral: we are all just guests here, and it would do us well to bear that in mind.

Country of Hotels is currently on the festival circuit and will be showing up next at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival (May 7-15, exact date of screening not known at time of publication). We’ll keep you advised of future availability. Also see our interview with director Julio Maria Martino and writer David Hauptschein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anyone who associates low-budget horror purely with cheap slasher films will be profoundly surprised by how ambitious and weird Country of Hotels is. It’s the work of people who are using their below-the-radar status to take serious chances. It also punches above its weight technically, thanks to Slocovich’s slick, moody cinematography and a fabulous score by Christos Fanaras, which ably carries the movie through its slower patches.”–Graham Williamson, Horrified (festival review)

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat

11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

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La casa lobo

“Like in dreams, where one person can assimilate the attributes of another, the story and characters of the film take on different materialities. All of the changes in the house, characters and objects emphasize the permanent under-construction reality of the film.”–from the director’s statement to The Wolf House

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: A prologue purports to be a documentary on a Chilean commune founded by Germans; we are told that the film that follows has been restored from their vaults. Those reels tell the story of Maria, a girl who strays from their community and finds herself hiding from a wolf at a mysterious house in the woods. There, she finds and nurtures two piglets, who gradually turn human.

Still from The Wolf House (Las Casa Lobo) (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • The scenario was inspired by Colonia Dignidad, a colony founded by ex-Nazis in Chile. The colony was often described as a cult and was insulated from its neighbors by barbed-wire fences. From 1961 to 1996 it was led by Paul Schäfer, a refugee wanted for child molestation in West Germany. The colony became the subject of dark rumors among the locals, rumors which were validated after escapees told tales of systematic child abuse inside the compound. The cult survived by allying with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the colony as a detention and torture camp.
  • Cociña and León had worked together, and sometimes separately, on a number of award-winning animated shorts before tackling this, their first feature film. The Wolf House took five years to complete.
  • Cociña and León took their sets on the road and worked on The Wolf House at various museums across the world, where visitors watched as they created the animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Due to the sheer volume and continually shifting nature of The Wolf House‘s liquid visuals, picking a single image is an imposing task. We will go with the grayscale eyeball that materializes on the house’s wall like a sketch drawn by an invisible pencil, complete with a semitransparent eyelid, a pulsating pupil, and the ability to shake the furniture with its glance.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Pigs with human hands; magic Aryan honey

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Wolf House‘s experimental animation traps us in a constantly shifting nightmare dollhouse: Maria merges into and out of the walls, conjures human features for her pigs, and even the paintings on the walls can’t keep their shape for more than a second or two. The fascist-fairy tale tone is dreamily calm, and inescapably horrific.


Original trailer for The Wolf House

COMMENTS: It’s probably enlightening to have some background Continue reading 11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)