Tag Archives: Thriller

LES VAMPIRES (1915)

Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).

A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.

A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both and . The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.

Still from Les Vampires (1915)When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it  easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).

Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.

Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.

It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.

Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.

338. FREAKS (1932)

Recommended

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”–prologue to Freaks

Freaks is one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio.”–David Skal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles

PLOT: At a circus, an evil performer intends to marry a sideshow midget to exploit him for his wealth. Eventually her plans extend to attempted murder. The midget’s fellow sideshow denizens have his back, exacting a primitive form of carnival justice.

BACKGROUND:

  • Freaks was based on Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs.”
  •  Director Tod Browning started out as a contortionist performing in the circus himself, an inspiration from which he drew for this movie.
  • Browning leveraged his clout from helming the previous year’s hit Dracula to get Freaks made. The controversial film nearly ended his career, however; he would direct only four more projects (working uncredited on two of them) before retiring in 1939.
  • MGM stars Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and Jean Harlow all turned down parts in the film due to the subject matter.
  • Freaks was often banned by state censors in its original form when it first came out. It was not allowed to be exhibited in the United Kingdom until the late 1963. It’s since been cut from a reported 90-minute running time, leaving us with the modern edit that runs just over an hour. The original full length may forever be lost. The cut version was a dud at the box office.
  • Although Freaks bombed on its original release and was pulled from theaters, it survived when (Maniac) bought the rights and took the film on tour (often using alternate titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes) in the late 1940s. Freaks was screened at Cannes in 1962 and received positive reappraisals, sparking its second life as a cult film.
  • “Entertainment Weekly” ranked Freaks third in their 2003 list of the Top 50  Cult Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sing it along with us, Internet: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The Wedding Feast (it gets its own title card) is an omnipresent meme for very good reasons. Fast forward to it if you must, because this is the true beginning of Freaks.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sensually connected twins; “Gooble-gobble!”; half-boy with Luger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Life is not always fair; sometimes you’re born with no legs. But sometimes your movie comes along at the precise pinpoint in history where it could get made. We will always have exactly one Freaks, because even substituting CGI for actually disabled people, nobody in a modern day Hollywood studio would have the balls to remake this.


The opening scenes of Freaks

COMMENTS: We all know examples of movies where their hype far Continue reading 338. FREAKS (1932)

CAPSULE: BLIND BEAST (1969)

Môjû; AKA Warehouse

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Yasuzô Masumura

FEATURING: Eiji Funakoshi, Mako Midori, Noriko Sengoku

PLOT: A blind sculptor kidnaps a model and imprisons her in his studio.

Still from Blind Beast (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blind Beast scores two points in its weird ledger: one for the set design (which is almost always described as esque), and another for its irrationally sadomasochistic third act. At its core, however, it’s an odd and engaging “pinku” (as Japanese softcore erotic films of the 1960s were dubbed) that’s reminiscent of 1965’s The Collector (although the scenario was adapted loosely from a story). The sight of the sightless sculptor’s bizarro studio would have gotten Blind Beast shortlisted had we reviewed it earlier, but given the limited available slots, we see Beast as close, but not quite worthy of being named one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Blind Beast quickly gets in gear after the abduction, which is handled in an absurdly economical ten minutes. The blind antihero selects his model victim by feeling up a sculpture of her, then steals into her apartment posing as a masseur. With the help of his trusty sighted assistant, who also happens to be his mother, he soon has beautiful young Aki imprisoned inside his remote warehouse studio, and this is where the “fun” begins. The blind sculptor’s studio utilizes a fetishized geometry, with high-relief assemblies of (female) body parts lining each of the eight walls, enclosing two giant, pliant sculptures of prone nude women (one on her stomach, one on her back). The blind, stumbling hunter and his victim chase each through this corporeal funhouse; he clutches a giant nipple as he bargains for her compliance. Later, they will make love—of their strange sort—while rolling about on the humungous feminine torsos. You probably have never seen that before.

The middle part of the film involves Aki’s machinations as she tries to escape, until a near-miss attempt permanently costs her her freedom and sets the bizarre third act into motion. These scenes work well as a standard woman-in-peril thriller. When she fails to sneak past the blind man fail thanks to the interference of his maternal assistant, Aki switches to a psychological ploy. She pretends to fall in love with her captor and plays son and mother against each other. Of course, were she to escape so easily, the movie would end prematurely; and the movie has a better—or worse—fate in store for Aki.

The blind man’s studio is as sick a materialization of a male libido as could be imagined. His love/hate relationship with his mother suggests an Oedipal complex. Still, the psychology here is only deep by the standards of pink movies. The sadomasochistic finale, a sudden and wrenching departure from first two-thirds of the movie, is foreshadowed from the film’s earliest moments, but the movie provides no real insights into the pathology. Given the absurd heights of agonizing ecstasy its characters travel to, how could it?  Their obsessions are perverse, and the tale depicts them poetically without trying to explain them. Blind Beast is surprisingly coy with its nudity, most of which is only seen in still photographs from the opening art exhibition. Mako Midori’s breasts are skillfully hidden throughout the film, and a corner of a nipple is a rare and tantalizing sight. This teasing modesty gives the erotic visuals even more impact, while serving the theme of frustrated voyeurism. Blind Beast would be nearly impossible to distribute today, through licit channels, due to its outdated attitude to consent. Seduction is important to the plot, but Aki willingly (and eagerly) surrenders only after an hour of brutal coercion. And yet, Blind Beast has a sort of innocence about it, largely due to the unreal nature of its psychodrama: a fantasy of total abandon to physical sensation far beyond any rational limits, played out in a subterranean lair of mountainous breasts, dismembered legs, and eyeballs leering from the walls. It’s a space we would never want to visit, but one we can’t look away from.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre and claustrophobic…  a masterpiece of mod 1960s art design… Completely freaky and utterly engrossing.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “MystMoonstruck” and seconded by “Dreamer.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: HARD CANDY (2005)

DIRECTED BY: David Slade

FEATURING: , Patrick Wilson

PLOT: A teenage girl turns the tables on a sexual predator, subjecting him to torture in retribution for his misdeeds.

Still from Hard Candy (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For regular consumers of torture-based horror, the turnabout of predator and prey in Hard Candy is an interesting surprise. But twist aside, what’s notable about the movie isn’t how strange it is, but how it uses the genre to address heavy questions about guilt, justice, and gender roles.

COMMENTS: In January of this year, confessed serial child molester Larry Nassar was forced to sit quietly while 156 women confronted him about his crimes and the pain they have endured ever since. And Larry Nassar did not like it. This man, whose systematic abuse was aided by America’s top gymnastics coaches, abetted by the country’s gymnastics federation, and protected by Michigan State University, submitted a letter to the judge protesting that having to endure the testimony of his many targets was detrimental to his mental health and asserting that he was a good person who was being unfairly victimized by hateful, hateful women. Suffice it to say, the letter was poorly received.

The reason I bring this up—aside from maybe wanting to add just one more link on Google that reminds the world that Larry Nassar is heinous slimeball—is because Hard Candy does a fantastic job of getting inside the deluded mind of the privileged sex criminal: rejecting the existence of a crime, then mitigating its seriousness, and finally claiming victimhood for himself. The film’s subject, photographer Jeff, uses all these techniques to deceive us into sympathizing with him, even as we watch him go through all the steps of sexual predation: grooming, leading passively, shifting guilt back onto his targets. And he’s good at it, so when the 14-year old girl he’s been expecting to seduce drugs him, ties him up, and proceeds to insult and threaten him, there’s still this lingering sense that he’s a decent guy who has just gotten himself into a real pickle.

The plot evokes memories of Audition, which is appropriate, as Brian Nelson’s screenplay was evidently inspired by news reports of gangs of girls in Japan who lured businessmen into traps online. But where the earlier film hides its intentions behind the tropes of romantic comedy, Hard Candy quickly adopts the conventions of horror, including bondage and body mutilation. The film’s innovation is to flip the script and turn the diminutive (Page is a full foot shorter than her co-star), incautious heroine into the diabolical, unstoppable engine of terror. The result is that she can be read as a violent lunatic, when it is vital to remember that the man she is tormenting is a very bad person.

Movies can be victims of changing times. In 2005, many reviewers called Page’s Hayley a psychopath and lamented the film’s second-half descent into cat-and-mouse thriller. But today, she comes across more as an avenging angel come to force the guilty to acknowledge their sins. It’s noteworthy that the scene that falls the flattest—Page has to sidestep Sandra Oh’s inquisitive neighbor—is the one that tries the hardest to impose the conventions of a thriller onto a battle over the nature of evil. Hard Candy turns out to have been ahead of its time.

Page is truly magnificent, by the way; this was her breakthrough performance, and she has never since had a role that equals it in power. But it’s worth noting that she has a good partner in Wilson, who hits all the right beats for a character who is innately gifted at evading, deflecting, and denying responsibility for his actions. His bland dismissals and patronizing defenses are essential in pushing her forward, validating her anger and justifying her ultimate plan.

The final woman to stand up to Larry Nassar in court was the woman whose testimony triggered his downfall. Rachael Denhollander— whose name also deserves to be remembered—demonstrated unbelievable magnanimity by promising to pray for Nassar, that he find true repentance and forgiveness. And that is probably the most moral and decent response that anyone could hope for under the circumstances. Hard Candy suggests an alternate response, and while it plays more toward wish fulfillment and is by no means appropriate in a civil society, in the face of an evil that is often unspeakable, the movie shows why it still has appeal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hard Candy is one sick movie. Sick and horrifying. Sick and mesmerizing. Sick and well-scripted, well-acted, well-directed and well-shot. Sick and comical; sick and suspenseful; sick and surprising; sick and sickening. Maybe if I take another shower, I’ll feel less scummy for enjoying it so much.” – Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by ralph. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: RUPTURE (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishe, Lesley Manville, Andrew Moodie, Ari Millen, Jean Yoon, Jonathan Potts,

PLOT: Young mother Renee Morgan (Rapace) is abducted by a strange group and endures tests and tortures designed to elicit some response they refer to as a “rupture”- but what exactly is that?

Still from Rupture (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not that weird, though there are some aspects here and there. But it’s certainly odd—those expecting a straightforward piece of “capture/torture porn” will not be pleased. There’s a lot to be intrigued by, if you can run with a variation on the genre.

COMMENTS: Looking at most of the reviews, and the current mainstream arbiter of good and bad films, Rotten Tomatoes, Rupture doesn’t fare well. Fair enough. For this type of thriller, it doesn’t truly deliver in terms of shocks, it’s not nearly as gory as most of its brethren, and most of the events are standard tropes in its genre niche. That said, I think that most of those negative reviewers overlook the interesting aspects of this film, which tips its hand fairly early that it’s not going to be the usual capture/torture story.

For one thing, there’s a subtle humor running throughout the film in the lighting and art direction. There’s Suspiria-style lighting throughout the facility, and one room referencing Kubrick’s The Shining. In the performances, Renee’s captors/tormentors are surprisingly polite and deferential, if extremely focused. There’s also the lack of over-the-top graphicness and the growing realization that despite the fearful goings on, very little of the film orients towards horror. It’s not quite a subversion of the torture/capture scenario, but it’s certainly a side path.

Rupture is a much less graphic Martyrs, with a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as things play out. You can call it a social satire, if you consider current events as having some influence in interpreting and enjoying the arts. Those factors, plus an ending which leaves things open to continue the story, makes it understandable why audiences expecting a taut thriller would be slightly disappointed.

Rupture can currently be viewed on the Cinemax networks and on DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Rupture is worth persevering with as it turns into a tense, claustrophobic and strange experience.”–Katherine McLaughlin, SciFiNow (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GHAJINI (2008)

DIRECTED BY: A.R. Murugadoss

FEATURING: Aamir Khan, Asin, Pradeep Rawat, Jiah Khan

PLOT: A dashing young CEO suffering short-term memory loss hunts the gangster who killed his fiancée.

Still from Ghajini (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghajini is mostly just clumsy blockbuster entertainment, appearing weird only to Westerners unfamiliar with Bollywood’s much looser tolerance of narrative coherence. In its home country, it was actually a hit, both financially and with critics.

COMMENTS: At about the thirty-minute mark of Ghajini, an unprepared viewer might assume someone at the DVD factory in New Delhi messed up and burned reels from a different movie onto the disc. Up until this point, you’ve been watching a dark revenge thriller about a tattooed amnesiac maniac. Suddenly, a narrator introduces himself as Sanjay Singhania, suave cell phone magnate, a prelude which segues into an MTV-style video with dancing girls, and then we find ourselves immersed in a sappy mistaken-identity romantic comedy, with a model pretending she’s Sanjay’s boyfriend, while unbeknownst to her he’s pretending to be an actor helping her with her deception… try not to get whiplash from one of the most violent tone shifts you’ve ever seen in a commercial film. What turns out to be a flashback lasts for about 45 minutes (with more upbeat musical numbers), ending on a “will they get married” cliffhanger… and then we’re back in the first movie, where the tattooed man delivers a brutal beating to the police officer who had been reading his diary. We’ll return to the lighthearted romantic comedy again later, which ends as all good comedies do… with the brutal torture and killing of the female lead after she uncovers a kidney-stealing ring preying on orphan girls.

Ghajini is pretty exhausting, honestly. It steals borrows plenty from the (vastly superior) thriller Memento, only with an anti-hero who has gained bone-crunching kickboxing skills along with short-term memory loss from a blow to the head. Oh, and musical numbers, and, as mentioned, a romantic comedy with a tragic ending as a bonus film. All this in a mere three hours! If you’re looking for even more, there’s the hammy performance of beefy Aamir Khan, who, despite his impressive physique, turns out to be better suited to comedy than action/drama (where he relies on over-the-top, animalistic howls and face-churning grimaces to convey grief). You also may have fun picking out the plot holes, like the basic question: why, if the hero is a multi-millionaire, does he choose to live like a squatter in a run-down apartment rather than using the vast resources at his disposal to bring his enemy to justice? I mean, a competent personal assistant would have been far more helpful in keeping him on-task in his revenge quest than a bunch of mysterious scribbled notes, Polaroids, and tattoos are.

My guess is that the romantic comedy portion of the film (which has no third act) was adapted from an unpublished screenplay the studio had lying around, and incorporated to provide chick appeal and a more natural substrate for the mandatory Bollywood musical numbers. To make things even more confusing, Ghajini is a Hindi-language remake of a 2005 Tamil-language film of the same name, by the same director, with some of the same cast. complained about Ghajini‘s similarities to Memento but did not take legal action; however, Murugadoss was sued (and even briefly arrested) by the producers of Ghajini (2005) for not properly securing remake rights.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an experience almost too stimulating for the non-Indian nervous system, a blockbuster layer cake of full-strength escapist entertainment.”–David Chute, LA Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “jenn” who called it “an indian remake of ‘momento’… its a bit weird… its like momento, u know…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)

Tras el Crystal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Günter Meisner, , Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes

PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.

Still from In a Glass Cage (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.

COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.

Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying  warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.

The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.

Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the film’s characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing… easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.”–Chris Gallant, Kinoeye, Nov. 2002

(This movie was nominated for review by “w depaul.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)