Tag Archives: Video Nasty

252. POSSESSION (1981)

AKA The Night the Screaming Stops

Recommended

“…Viktor Shklovsky wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too… In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else.”–Daniel Bird

“Nothing wants to bite anymore – they want to lick.”– Andrzej Zulawski, from the Possession commentary track.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Heinz Bennent, Margit Carstensen, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: Mark, an agent for some unspecified agency, returns home to his wife, Anna, and son in Berlin only to find that Anna has taken a lover. She splits her time between her home and her lover; however, Mark still wants her, causing extensive conflict between them. He uncovers a previous affair with a man named Heinrich, but she also left him for another—and finding the identity of her current lover leads to mayhem and a rising body count.

Still from Possession (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Andrzej Zulawski conceived Possession in the wake of several events—the collapse of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek after being allowed to return to Poland from exile after the international success of 1975’s The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and the subsequent production and shutdown of On The Silver Globe and his second exile from Poland.
  • Zulawski originally pitched the film to Paramount Studio head Charlie Bluhdorn, calling it “a movie about a woman who f**ks an octopus.” They passed.
  • The film played at Cannes and Isabelle Adjani won “Best Actress,” sharing the award for her roles in both Possession and Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet.
  • The final film was chopped up by distributors. The U.S. release was notorious for being a total misrepresentation of the movie: the distributor removed about 40 minutes, reshuffled scenes, and added optical effects to play up and sell it as a horror movie. The Australian version made similar cuts. It wasn’t until 2000 that the original version was available to be seen in the U.S.
  • Possession was briefly released in the UK, but on videotape it was later banned as a “video nasty,” a classification intended for extreme horror films with no artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film with many memorable images, mainly close-ups of the characters in various stages of mania, the one that sticks is of Adjani’s Anna being serviced by something coiled around her… and writhing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink socks; subway miscarriage; Anna’s lover

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It starts out as a domestic drama turned up to 11, which then goes up to 15. The intensity is compelling, especially when most other relationship films at the time went for quiet decorum. Possession throws all that right out the window. And then at the midway point, it drops the bottom out of expectations with the introduction of the Creature.


Possession international release trailer

COMMENTS: There seems to be no major disagreement about Possession joining a list of “weird” anything. The fur begins to fly in the Continue reading 252. POSSESSION (1981)

CAPSULE: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Ruggero Deodato

FEATURING: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen

PLOT: A professor launches an expedition into the Amazon searching for a missing crew of documentary filmmakers; he instead finds reels of film the crew shot depicting atrocities they themselves committed against the tribes, followed by the cannibals’ ultimate vengeance.

Still from Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Other than an unusual narrative structure and an incongruent musical score, I can’t detect much weirdness here; in fact, the movie strives for documentary realism. I think the fact that people (including critics) continually cite this film as “weird” is a case of confusion between the overlapping genres of the “shock” movie (which is sometimes, but not always, weird) and the “weird” movie (which is often shocking, but not always in a disturbing way).

COMMENTS: “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” muses Cannibal Holocaust‘s professor as ninety minutes of carnage grind to a halt. Surely, what he meant to say is “I wonder who the real savages are?” I mean, the real cannibals are clearly the ones who eat people, right? It’s sloppy, thoughtless touches like that which should tip off this film’s defenders that, despite some stabs at social commentary, Holocaust is not meant as a meaningful work of horror art. It’s a work of commercial exploitation, designed to bleed maximum receipts from grindhouse theater patrons. Because of its parade of atrocities, it is effective at giving you that dirty, nihilistic feeling that some people crave in their “horror” (although I think this type of extreme transgressive film, which isn’t really scary, belongs to another genre entirely: call it “despair porn” or, less judgmentally, “moral horror”). Director Ruggero Deodato does have a talent for moral horror, turning cannibal rape orgies into a kind of flowing sick poetry. The low-tech special effects here are excellent, especially the skulls overgrown with lichen and crawling with jungle vermin, and the impalement scene was so realistic that an Italian court brought Deodato up on charges of murder until he revealed how the trick was done. The unusual structure of the film, with a standard narrative yielding halfway through to found footage sequences interrupted by a framing commentary, serves to keep the viewer off guard.

Aside from the visceral makeup and the willingness to go “all the way” in depicting cruelty, however, Cannibal Holocaust is competent at best, subpar at worst. The acting, especially from young actors in the missing film crew, is not very convincing. Worse yet, their motivations are barely explained and cartoonishly villainous. The crew appears to conceived of as photogenic, celebrity versions of mondo shockumentarians (in a typically tasteless move, Deodato includes actual footage of villagers being executed by African firing squads that could have come from the Italians’ opus Africa Addio). The notion is that the filmmakers in the film-inside-the-film are willing to provoke conflict and stage violence (charges leveled against Jacopetti and Prosperi) to make their documentaries more shocking and marketable. The over-the-top way this idea is executed is scarcely believable, however; not only does the director here stage obscene atrocities and film his own rape scene, he is visibly gleeful when his guide has to have his leg amputated and when he comes across a woman impaled on a stake. If he could, he would tie cannibal women to train tracks while cackling and twirling his mustache. And besides the lack of credible motivation, there’s an even bigger logical problem with the movie that goes straight to the reason for its existence: although we might stretch our imagination to believe that the filmmakers might be stupid enough to shoot their own crimes, no one would take valuable time that could be spent fleeing for his life to film the cannibals’ final revenge against his friends.

Of course, the worst part of the movie, which gives it its enduring infamy, are the gruesome animal killings, highlighted by the nauseating decapitation and evisceration of a giant river turtle. So many people miss the point of the objections to the animal cruelty that it’s necessary to elucidate it again. It does not matter that most of the animals were eaten after they were killed, or that most of them died quickly and relatively painlessly. The point is that, if it was truly necessary to the story, the violence against animals could have been realistically staged, just as the violence against humans was. Deodato deliberately—and repeatedly—chose to have the animals actually killed on-camera precisely because of the effect he knew it would have on the audience. He wanted to generate shock, outrage, and—ultimately and especially—income. Animal cruelty objectionable because of what is says about humans who perpetrate it; the “cruelty” side of the equation is far more saddening than the “animal” side. (To his credit, Deodato is on record as regretting shooting these scenes).

Leave the animal killings out of the movie, however, and Cannibal Holocaust would be lost in the trashpile of Italian cannibal movies, no more remembered than Cannibal Ferox or Emanuele and the Last Cannibals. The film is an effective sickie, but it’s morally repugnant and, as many have correctly pointed out, ironically hypocritical in its insincere attack on the media’s tendency to focus on (and even instigate) violence. The thesis that modern industrialized man is as savage as the Amazonian cannibal tribe is facile at best, but the only way that Deodato can prove it is to make himself into a monster. It’s as if I said to you, “people are inherently vicious,” and then proved my point by punching you in the nose. You’d probably be more angry at me than convinced of my theory, which is how I feel about Cannibal Holocaust.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a weird movie with an awkward narrative, which Deodato makes all the more effective with his grimy sheen of documentary realism, while Riz Ortolani’s unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score provides a weird undercurrent.”–Sean Axmaker, Digital Delirium (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: POSSESSION (1981)

Possession has been officially promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. This post is left here for historical purposes. Please read the official Certified Weird entry.

AKA: The Night the Screaming Stops

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: A secret agent finds himself in a real mess when he hires a detective to track his unfaithful wife.

Still from POSSESSION (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With campy acting, absurdist elements mixed with existentialist philosophy, arty cinematography, and a story full of all kinds of bizarre and wacky stuff like sex with sea creatures, pointless self mutilation, and people making funny faces for no apparent reason, Possession is practically tailor made to make the List. While I personally don’t think Possession represents a serious effort to convey meaning substantial enough to qualify for the List, I am confident that most viewers will strongly disagree with me.  Possession has a resolute feel about it that will be enough to convince most fans of weird movies that it is a meaningful and significantly weird cinematic endeavor.  Out of deference to those fans I hereby recommend it without reservation.

COMMENTS:  A love triangle among eccentric characters spirals out of control and becomes a love octagon. And the protagonist’s girlfriend is in love with some of kind of octopussy thing.

Sam Neil plays a spy who quits his job to spend more time with his girlfriend and out of wedlock son.  She leaves him, he has a nervous breakdown that leads to a three-week black-out, he meets the new boyfriend who is quite completely insane and possibly a little queer for Sam.

Sam dates his son’s teacher who appears to be his wife’s twin.  Meanwhile the wife leaves the new boyfriend for another boyfriend who is some kind of extraterrestrial octopus, to whom she feeds a succession of uninvited guests, such as a private detective and an insane window inspector (yes that’s right, an insane window inspector.)

In the midst of all of this, the characters physically and verbally convulse in spastic apoplexies Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: POSSESSION (1981)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: XTRO (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Harry Bromley Davenport

FEATURING: Bernice Stegers, Phillip Sayer, Danny Brainin, Maryam d’Abo

PLOT: A husband and father disappears one day while playing frisbee with his young son; three years later, he returns to the family as an amnesiac who eats snake eggs for sustenance.

Still from Xtro (1983)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEXtro is vying for the spot on the List reserved for an incoherent low-budget sci-fi/horror combo movie.  Unfortunately, that spot has already been filled by Phantasm, a more involving and iconic film; is there room for two films in the genre?  Xtro is definitely a b-flick of interest, but it’s inconsistent, and there seem to be better candidates for the List running around out there.

COMMENTSXtro makes the most of some fascinating and inventive exploitation moments that stick out all the more because they’re set against a poorly developed background story.  It features so-so acting (particularly from the not so precocious child co-star), dull patches of domestic drama, and an annoying synthesizer score by the director, who is no John Carpenter.  But people tend to forget all that, remembering instead the graphic scene where a woman gives birth to a full-grown man, who helpfully chews off his own umbilical cord after emerging!  It takes some work to upstage the nude scenes by a debuting future Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, which by themselves would have insured the film a semi-legendary status, but Xtro manages to come up with multiple gross-out tableaux that push d’Abo’s ta-tas into the background.  Most notable is a sequence where a dwarf clown kills the French nanny by conking her on the head with a rubber hammer, then uses her body to incubate alien eggs. Bizarre, perverse sexual imagery abounds: a woman is impregnated (through the mouth) by a phalluslike appendage that emerges from an alien’s body through a zipper built directly into its skin. At other times characters exchange what one presumes is alien DNA by sucking on each other’s sides or shoulders, which appears to produce sexual ecstasy.  A murderous giant plastic solider and a prowling panther who appears from nowhere add to the mad quality. The movie is set in comfortably cliched horror movie territory, so you always feel like you know where it’s heading, and yet the plot often makes little sense.  Most significantly, there’s no explanation for the alien’s motives for returning to Earth.  Presumably, Sam only wanted to retrieve his son, but why kill random folks and hire a clown to train the tyke in phantasmagorical techniques to murder the neighbors?  Why not just zap the lad up to the mothership, the way Dad was abducted in the first place? Arthouse patrons will want to stay far away, but fans of crazed, excessive b-movies may want to snatch this one up; the weird money scenes make the film linger in the memory longer than it really deserves.

Xtro was mentioned in the same breath as films placed on the British “video nasty” list, but it was never actually banned.  Although it’s shocking and definitely earns an “R” rating, it’s hardly among the most sadistic and offensive movies ever made.  The original ad campaigns played off the success of Spielberg’s then recent E.T. with the tag line, “Some extraterrestrials aren’t friendly.”  The DVD contains the original ending (lopped off by New Line Cinema for the American release), which is much different in tone and even weirder than the climax with which most viewers are familiar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird but not wonderful low-budget horror that is a succession of odd moments rather than a conventional narrative.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide