Tag Archives: Witch

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)

246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

Kanashimi no Beradonna

“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Eiichi Yamamoto

FEATURING: Voices of Chinatsu Nakayama, Aiko Nagayama, , Katsuyuki Itô, Masaya Takahashi

PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.

Still from Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even harder than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
  • The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
  • “Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.


U.S. release trailer for Belladonna of Sadness

COMMENTS: We a huge debt of gratitude to whoever’s idea it was Continue reading 246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: WITCHING AND BITCHING (2013)

Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hugo Silva, , Mario Casas, Jaime Ordóñez, , Terele Pávez, Gabriel Delgado

PLOT: Small-time crooks bump into a coven of witches while on the run.

Still frpm Witching and Bitching (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Like most of ‘s spiffy, nutty B-movie efforts, Witching comes close to making the List at first glance. Its spell is mad and it makes for near perfect Halloween (or post-Halloween) entertainment—but does de la Iglesia have a better weird candidate out there lurking in his canon?

COMMENTS: About midway through Witching and Bitching, as the three main protagonists are tied up at a feast while their hostess paces on the ceiling talking on her cellphone, one of them speculates that they must have been drugged by witches’ ointment and are experiencing a mass hallucination. From their standpoint it’s a credible theory, but in the world of the movie, the scene is terribly real, and it’s about to get worse. But let’s go back to  the beginning. After a Macbeth-ish “bubble bubble” prologue, Witching begins in earnest when Jesus, a green toy soldier, and some trademarked cartoon characters (you’ll never think of a certain sponge the same way again) rob a sad-sack pawn shop of its fortune in hocked wedding rings. Following a hail of bullets and a car chase, we learn that the shotgun-toting Jesus has brought his elementary school-aged son along on the heist. Fleeing in a hijacked taxi towards the French border, the two escaped gunmen recruit the driver to their cause by sharing sob stories about women problems.

Unfortunately, the gang’s escape route takes them through the Basque town of Zugarramurdi, a historical center of witchcraft, and things take a supernatural turn. Before we know it there are women walking on the ceiling; along the way we also get grabby toilets, a pair of transvestite witches, and hot punk sorceress Carolina Bang in black undies humping a broomstick while dousing herself with fresh-squeezed toad blood. With the protags tailed by an angry ex and a pair of squabbling detectives, it all ends up in an apocalyptic eldritch ceremony with a globby giant demon-Goddess whose appearance actually elicited a “wow” from this reviewer.

There’s plenty of comedy, too, much of it revolving around child custody and sexual politics. In fact, the grossout gags mixed with a pseudo-misogynist, women-are-inherently-evil subtext at times suggests Antichrist by way of Evil Dead II, although the men here are no prize either and the warring genders are reconciled by the film’s happy ending. Despite the battle-of-the-sexes thematic subtext, Witching is overwhelmingly a plot-and-gag based affair with hardly a whiff of seriousness. It’s a rambunctious ride that seldom lets up for a breather; it just keeps pressing the petal to the floor, injecting more crazy fuel into its insanity engine. Witching is the movie From Dusk Till Dawn wanted to be: wall-to-wall frenzy, without the smug egos.

Whoever approved the English-language title, however, should be burned at the stake.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Full of weird and wonderful insanity, Witching and Bitching is the kind of wild ride you don’t look away from.”–Neil Miller, Film School Rejects (contemporaneous)

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)

68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages

Must See

“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan

DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen

FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
Still from Häxan (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan.  He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
  • The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors.  Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
  • In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
  • Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
  • In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery.  The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts.  This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.

Scene from Häxan (1922)

COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

CAPSULE REVIEW: BABA YAGA (1973)

AKA:  Kiss Me Kill Me

DIRECTED BY:  Corrado Farina

FEATURING: Carroll Baker, George Eastman, Isabelle De Funès,

PLOT: A fashion photographer is beguiled by a lesbian witch who seeks to dominate, seduce and consume her.

Still from Baba Yaga (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTBab Yaga is straight Euro-thriller.  While such films have an unconventional feel by US standards, the style is characteristic of this distinctive 1960’s-’70’s genre, and therefore very conventional on its own terms.

COMMENTSBaba Yaga is a very stylish Italian occult film in the Euro horror tradition of Suspiria.  It is based on artist Guido Crepax’s highly stylized graphic novel about a sorceress who tries to bewitch a fashion photographer.  Crepax adapted the novel from his risqué S&M comic .

Valentina (De Funès) is an up and coming fashion photographer with a knack for controversial shoots.  After she has a chance encounter with the fashionable and alluring society matron Baba Yaga, her life takes strange and eerie turns.  Yaga discovers Valentina on a darkened street, becomes attracted to her and begins to inject herself into the young shutterbug’s life in odd ways.  Yaga develops a strange fixation on Valentina, one that is more than platonic.

Yaga lives in a striking Gothic Revival mansion, it’s interiors bedecked with layers of satin, red velvet –and heavy leather in the boudoir.  While the house is very luxurious, it is in need of a few repairs.  There is a nasty hole under the oriental rug in the drawing room—the opening of a bottomless pit to Hell.  It is only fitting to have an eccentric home, because the owner isn’t exactly mainstream.  Babs is taken with keeping vipers and Australian fruit bats for pets, has some creepy taxidermy a la Norman Bates, and owns a collection of cursed curios.

In a gesture of benevolence, Baba Yaga gives Valentina a large Victorian doll “to protect” her.  Valentina counters that she doesn’t need any protection.  Well, she does now!  The Continue reading CAPSULE REVIEW: BABA YAGA (1973)

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Victor Fleming (credited), King Vidor, Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited)

FEATURING: Judy Garland, , Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley

PLOT:  A cyclone carries a Kansas girl (and her little dog, too) to a magical land over the rainbow.

Still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In creating a list of the 366 best weird movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz presents a huge challenge.  After all, this Technicolor extravaganza contains such trippy imagery as a bizarre cyclone that hurls snatches of a young girl’s fears past her spinning window; a land of doll-like little people threatened by a witch; talking apple trees; a giant floating green head appearing and disappearing before a curtain of flame; knife-nosed, green-faced Cossack guards; and of course, flying monkeys—never underestimate the weirdness of flying monkeys.  These should be the building blocks of a stunningly psychedelic pic, but if this magical movie only seems fantastic, never weird, it’s because the entire adventure feels so safe.  The musical numbers, the comedy, and the deliciously stagey sets serve to remind all but the very youngest children that we’re in an artificial, sheltered environment, and that no harm can ever come to Dorothy.  We’re invited to sit back and soak in the spectacle, not to experience it directly.

COMMENTS: Most reviews of The Wizard of Oz could be distilled down to two words: “me too.”  Are you a viewer who loves the movie?  Me, too.  You admire the immaculate casting and performances?  The unforgettable music?  The clever nonsense wordplay of Continue reading CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

CAPSULE: VIY [Вий] (1967)

Must See

AKA Viy, Spirit of Evil; Vij

DIRECTED BY:  Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov

FEATURING: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley

PLOT:  In medieval Ukraine, a seminarian must spend three nights praying over the

viy

corpse of a witch.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This faithful adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story is a classic of world horror, deserving a place alongside the quintessential Universal fright films.  Like the works of Gogol’s contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, Viy may have been regarded as a “weird” tale on its original publication, but today it seems a relatively straightforward ghost story, demonstrating how what was once weird may be subsumed into the mainstream over time.  It’s still unconditionally recommended, especially for fans of sublime supernatural horror storytelling that relies on atmosphere and foreboding rather than blood and guts.

COMMENTS: Viy is an unusual and exotic experience for Western viewers, for whom witches are not the prototypical supernatural villain, but most will quickly feel comfortable inside the film’s recognizable folk tale structure.  The story is impeccably told; Kuravlyov’s seminarian, who begins with a mischievous frat-boy brashness but ends up bullied and harried by both Cossacks and witches, is an eminently fallible but very likable comic-turned-tragic hero.  Varley’s nameless and mostly mute witch is eerily pretty, and manages to create a tremendous sense of menace simply by grasping blindly at the seminarian while he’s hidden from her view inside the holy circle he has drawn on the chapel floor with chalk.  The special effects aren’t always seamless (although you may wonder how some were achieved), but they are always artful and elegant, and their artificiality is an asset, creating a universe that’s far more otherworldly than it otherwise might be.  (Think of the difference between Willis O’Brien’s dreamlike and iconic stop-motion animated King Kong and Peter Jackson’s photorealistic but forgettable ape).  The gibbering gray demons that threaten to swarm over the hero in the exhilarating climax are as unforgettable an assortment of ogres as you are likely to see on film.

Mario Bava’s classic Black Sunday [La Maschera del Demonio] [1960] was also inspired by Viy, but that story veers so far from Gogol’s tale it can hardly be considered an adaptation.  Foolishly, a Russian remake of Viy is currently in the works.  The original was done perfectly, and CGI graphics cannot improve upon the stylish charm of the 1967 production.  The Russico DVD contains abundant extras, including lengthy excerpts from three silent Russian horror films: Queen of Spades, Satan Exultant, and The Portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically a folk tale at heart, this adaptation by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov follows the main story beats, but it’s completely schizophrenic in balancing satire, low humour, and horror… Karen Khachaturyan’s score is equally uneven, although he may have been following the filmmakers’ weird blend of comedy and horror.”–KQEK.com

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