All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE CLAY (2017)

Chi o sû nendo

DIRECTED BY: Sôichi Umezawa

FEATURING: , Shinoda Ryo, Tsuda Kanji

PLOT: Students in a rural Japanese clay workshop accidentally awaken a possessed being crafted by a failed sculptor who died under mysterious circumstances.

Still from Vampire Clay (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sôichi Umezawa gets a tip of the 366 Weird Hat for his creative directorial debut, but its Cronenberg-in-clay trappings are firmly in the realm of a (somewhat) standard scary movie.

COMMENTS: “Understated” and “body-horror” rarely sit side-by-side as descriptors, but Sôichi Umezawa pulls off this fairly impressive parlor trick with aplomb in his directorial debut. Primarily known for his make-up effects (and best known to us for his work on The ABCs of Death 2), Umezawa spins us a yarn set in an unlikely place (a rural clay-sculpting academy) about an unlikely antagonist (a creepy-cute blood golem thing). The action, such as it is, fits into that Horror Genre Standard Time of under ninety minutes. The result? A fairly memorable outing that won’t burn your entire evening.

Sensei Yuri Aina (Kurosawa Asuka) runs a very small school for aspiring sculptors somewhere in not-Tokyo, Japan. When she is forced to set up shop in an abandoned painter’s studio after finding her own workshop damaged by an earthquake, she unearths a bag of dried powder while digging in the studio’s garden. Thinking nothing of it, she places it in her school. Young up-and-comer Kaori (Shinoda Ryo), fresh from a stint at art school in totally-Tokyo, Japan, is one of Aina’s pupils. Kaori’s bucket of clay is used by another student, which prompts Kaori to re-hydrate the powdery remnants that Aina had put aside. Life returns to the cursed clay at the first spritz of water, and soon the students fall prey to a malevolent, inhuman force.

All told, there are just eight characters in this melodrama about rejection, competition, and the evils of industrial waste. The back-story of the evil clay beast is sufficiently over-the-top without slipping into giggle territory; I actually found myself rather moved by the tale of the failed sculptor who literally put his lifeblood into “Kakame”, the smiling vampire golem. The attacks on the students (who comprise five of the film’s eight characters) are all clever—think Cronenberg in high school art class. I imagine creativity and patience were Umezawa’s watchwords, as the budget for this movie must have been on the very low side. In one particularly unsettling bit, Kaori’s chief rival gets enveloped by the clay monster and tries to communicate to the other students the next day from within a sculpture. (I was reminded of the creepy short, Alma.) Other bits of violence—both gruesome and creative—are found throughout. The end veers heavily into the “Apocalypse-as-Revenge” genre, in perhaps a personal attack by the director on those who may have doubted his talents in the past.

Now that Sôichi Umezawa has proven he can maintain a feature-length narrative as well as scare his audience, I’m hopeful he’ll move on to some more challenging material. Vampire Clay takes you on a quick journey into one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the Gotta-Have-Blood monster genre while laying the ground-work for what will hopefully be a fuller career in weirdo-creepy motion pictures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The notion of Vampire Clay is a fun thought experiment, and Umezawa seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications…  the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.”–Scott Tobias, Variety

LIST CANDIDATE: SNOWFLAKE (2017)

Schneeflöckchen

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Adolfo J. Kolmerer

FEATURING: Reza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar, Xenia Assenza, David Masterson, Judith Hoersch, Alexander Schubert, David Gant

PLOT: In near-future Berlin, Javid and Tan find their fate preordained by a dentist’s ever-changing movie script as they pursue vengeance for their family’s deaths while in turn being pursued by hit men hired by the daughter of two bystanders they murdered while on their quest.

Still from Snowflake (2017)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Imagine, if you will, the cross-section where Delirious and Fight Club meet Adaptation as an action-revenge-comedy littered with comic book energy and political commentary presented through the lens of a German director of commercials. Snowflake definitely has the chops to join its 358 other pals, even if we’re forced to pass it over for the official 366-count tally.

COMMENTS: I admittedly “like to like” movies; however, I generally don’t like gushing about much of anything. That said, I beg your forgiveness if I fall into hagiographical tones over the next few paragraphs, as I have not been this much blown away by a movie for quite some time. Adolfo Kolmerer’s feature debut, Snowflake, not only defies succinct description (other than strings of superlatives), it would perhaps defy logic if it weren’t so expertly crafted by the screenwriter and so deftly presented by the director.

Snowflake‘s story concerns a series of interlocking revenge-focused stories. Javid (Reza Brojerdi) and Tan (Erkan Acar) are two long-time friends whose families died during a fire, possibly lit on purpose by xenophobic forces in a close-to-now, chaotic Berlin. Eliana (Xenia Assenza) seeks vengeance on these men for having murdered her parents in a kebab restaurant. Eliana’s bodyguard Carson (David Masterson) reluctantly agrees to introduce her to his estranged father (David Gant), who had been locked away for his homicidal-messianic tendencies, to help line up a string of unhinged murderers. Javid and Tan’s troubles are compounded when they discover that all their actions—indeed, everyone’s—seem to be determined by a dentist (Alexander Schubert) who dabbles in screenwriting. Hovering in the background is a vigilante superhero, a guardian angel nightclub singer, and a rather nasty bunch of neo-fascists aiming to stage a comeback.

Snowflake definitely has its own “feel”, while at the same time it tips its hat to its predecessors. , obviously; he seems to be credited now with influencing all manner of roaming-narrative crime movies. , too; the dentist-cum-puppet-master not only directs the action from his laptop, but in several sticky situations finds that his characters have tracked him down to make demands. (This leads to a number of the film’s funny moments, such as when Tan demands of him, “Think of us as the producers and you as the screenwriter. We give you an idea, and you have to make it work, no matter how stupid it is.”) Snowflake‘s political tones unfold slowly, beginning with some seemingly incongruous footage of an interview with an ex-police commissioner expounding on his nationalist ideas, and ending with the discovery of a hidden training facility for just-about-Nazi super-soldiers.

Ultimately, Snowflake stands as its own movie. Using a bold style while slavishly following scripted narrative logic, Kolmerer continued to amaze me at every twist and turn. I was so engrossed during the on-screen action in one scene that I had actually totally forgotten the “artificiality” of the whole narrative construct. By the film’s end I was left with a pleasantly extreme feeling of frisson, and perhaps even a shortness of breath. In order to keep myself brief, there are countless things I haven’t been able to touch upon. But I ask you to take my word for it that Snowflake is as beautiful and unique as its namesake, as well as a Damn sight more hilarious than a crystal of frozen water.

Snowflake releases on DVD and Blu-ray on Dec. 4. We’ll update you when it’s out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dizzying, hilarious film that combines post-Tarantino action/crime drama and Charlie Kaufman’s metafictional surrealism with exhilarating results.”–Jason Coffman, Daily Grindhouse (festival screening)

358. MANDY (2018)

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall … and Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” –Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Panos Cosmatos

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré

PLOT: A cult is passing through through the forested countryside in 1980s Pacific Northwest where Red Miller, a lumberjack, lives peaceably with his love, Mandy. When she catches the cult leader’s eye, dark beings descend upon her and Red, robbing Mandy of her life and Red of his sanity. Red mercilessly exacts vengeance upon all who wronged him.

Still from Mandy (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • Mandy is Panos Cosmatos’ second feature film, and his second film to be Certified Weird. So far, all of his movies have been set in 1983.
  • Cosmatos originally wanted Nicolas Cage to play Jeremiah Sand, but Cage preferred the role of Red. Co-producer smoothed things out and got the two to work out their disagreements, resulting in Cage playing the protagonist.
  • The character of Jeremiah Sand was based on cult-leader Charles Manson, another failed musician and acid head. Linus Roache, shortly before being cast as Jeremiah Sand, had dropped out of a cult after its leader had a meltdown.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mandy provides a full menu for this indeed—even if you winnow your options down to just Nicolas Cage looking crazy-go-nuts. However, the choice becomes clear upon reflection of whom this movie is actually about: Mandy and Jeremiah Sand. Mid-acid-trip-speech, Jeremiah’s and Mandy’s faces fade in and out of each other, capturing both of their haunting visages in continuous oscillation between the poles of Mandy’s mystical innocence and Jeremiah’s mystical evil.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Demonic apocalypse bikers; The Cheddar Goblin; Heavy Metal death axe

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Described by the director himself as “melancholic and barbaric”, Mandy plays like a Romantic era poem that collides violently with one helluva nightmare. Mandy‘s signposts of color saturation guide the eye along the paths of love, wrong, and vengeance while the dirgy soundtrack cues the ear like a Greek Chorus. Mandy is almost a movie to be felt more than watched. And even putting aside all the artistry, a cursory look at its basic ingredients screams “weird” as forcefully as Red screams “You ripped my shirt!”

Original trailer for Mandy

COMMENTSMandy, in perhaps its only convergence with convention, follows the three-act structure to a “T”, going so far as to designate each act with a title card. The opening, “the Shadow Continue reading 358. MANDY (2018)

CAPSULE: THE WICKER MAN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kate Beahan, , Frances Conroy

PLOT: Responding to a letter from his ex-girlfriend, Officer Edward Malus decides to recuperate from a harrowing traffic accident by investigating a missing person on an island inhabited by a cult of nature-worshiping women.

Still from The Wicker Man (20016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The weirdest thing about this movie is somehow this island of goddess-obsessed females didn’t all get seduced by mid-’00s Cage’s snarky charm. Seriously, though, the actual weirdest thing I came across was that the “Director’s Cut” was presented in full-frame on the DVD, with the PG-13 theatrical release in wide-screen on the reverse side.

COMMENTS: When under the direction of talented filmmakers, Nicolas Cage nothing short of amazing. And as for his many bad movies, I’ve never been unhappy to see him on the screen whenever he appears. So, Neil LaBute’s the Wicker Man does not deserve the lowly “3.7” score to be found on IMDb; it merits at least a solid 5. Nicolas Cage provides a competent performance in a competent PG-13 atmospheric horror film remake. That said, to come anywhere close to succeeding with a reimagining of one of the great scary movies starring some of Britain’s best actors from the ’70s, “competent” is far, far away from “worth-while”.

The story, for the few who may not know it, concerns the mercy mission of California cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage, in one of his many roles as a member of law enforcement). While taking some wellness leave after being injured during a dramatic (and recurring) car and truck crash, he receives a letter from ex-girlfriend Willow (Kate Beahan), requesting that he help her find her daughter, who has gone missing on Willow’s hometown island off the Pacific Northwest coast. This island is populated almost entirely by women, all of whom are members of a mother-goddess cult. As Malus’ investigation continues, their ominous harvest festival approaches.

I apologize for not having much to say about this movie, but there really isn’t much to go over. Technically, it’s put together competently ($40-million can get you that kind of quality control); the acting across the board is competent; and… then what? I volunteered to watch this having somehow spent my years between 2006 and now without having seen the movie that brought to the internet the famed “Not the bees!” meme. Indeed, I very nearly missed out on that singular treat for reasons alluded to in the “Why it won’t make the list” section. While a newer release probably would have served me better, the original DVD pressing had the director’s (read: “Not the bees!”) cut in full-frame presentation, something I avoid unless the film was intentionally made in the Academy ratio. I was quite perplexed when I finished the wide-screen version on my first go-around, having spent much of it idly taking random notes to kill time until the infamous bee scene; in the end I had to flip the disc and re-watch the finale, in full-frame. That was the most interesting part of my viewing experience. Now far bee it from me to sound so dismissive, but even though I could drone on some more if I felt like it, instead I’ll leave it that the Wicker Man rather fully lives “up” to the buzz.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Whenever we think our man Cage is totally sucking, it’s probably that he’s just so far ahead of the curve we’re afraid to follow lest we get hit by a truck careening around the bend. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD LIEUTENANT 2, Cage’s cop in WICKER doesn’t care if we root for him or not, he’s got his own road to ho, an arc that transcends words like ‘reckless’, ‘brave’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘inspired.’–Erich Kuersten, Acidemic

CAPSULE: BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001)

Le pacte des loups

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christophe Gans

FEATURING: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, , Émilie Dequenne,

PLOT: It’s 1764 and a vicious monster is terrorizing the French province of Gevaudan; the king sends his foremost naturalist, along with his Iroquois companion, to track down and slay the beast.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Convoluted plot and Matrix-style combat in a period drama do not a Weird Movie make, but darn it if it doesn’t come close.

COMMENTS: When contemplating this wondrously over-the-top film, I was struck (once more) with too many ways to open a review. Perhaps, “Wikipedia informs me that Brotherhood of the Wolf is a ‘French historical action horror film'”; or alternately, “Reader, be warned that along-side the ‘Recommended’ tag slapped at the top should be an as-prominent ‘Ridiculous’ tag.” I’ll settle, instead, on the following: “Baroque ’90s action hits its peak in Christophe Gans’ period drama, Brotherhood of the Wolf.” This movie crams in so many rehashed film techniques that it becomes a gloriously Bruckheimer-Woo-Ritchie-Besson-esque romp through mid-eighteenth century France.

The French Revolution is in full swing, but within minutes we careen back to half a century prior. Two horsemen in the rain approach a gaggle of thugs (dressed in drag) who are harassing an old man and his daughter. Down jumps Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior, and after a bit of slow-motion, quick-cut bandit-thrashing, he remounts and continues his journey with the other rider and soon the two arrive at the castle of Gévaudan’s local aristocrat. Who are these mysterious strangers? Along with Mani is the much-laureled Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a natural philosopher and some-time adventurer, who is determined to solve the mystery of the “Beast of Gévaudan.” What follows involves French-court courtship, martial-arts, French-court politics, a mess of cultists, and even some aristocratic incest. And of course there’s that big wolf monster cutting down the peasantry with impunity.

The stylistic approach Christophe Gans employs is apt for a narrative as convoluted as Brotherhood of the Wolf. Granted, he allows himself one-hundred and forty minutes to spin his yarn, but a miniseries’ worth of characters, events, and twists is jammed therein. The cinematic bombardment is pinned onto the plot bombardment: slo-mo combat set pieces, where one man (typically Iroquois) dispatches the baddies with an unchanging expression; staggered “pan and pause” shots setting things up for some not-so-subtle action foreshadowing; and even a few reverse chromatic effects for no reason other than, “Hey, you know what would look cool?”-ism. Having immersed myself during the ’90s in some of the best action movies the decade had to offer, I saw all their elements distilled in the service of an obscure eighteenth-century wolf legend1)Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.. I was overwhelmed with what could be best described as “smirking nostalgia.”

Alas, while Brotherhood of the Wolf stands as tour-de-force that attains considerable novelty through its impressive derivativeness, it is something of a “weekend warrior” in the realm of weird movies. Gans keeps the movie’s tone turned up throughout the run time, but despite being the director of the second (ever) Certified title, he seems more commercially inclined with this “French historical action horror” romp. But I have no complaints about that what-so-ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory… I would be lying if I did not admit that this is all, in its absurd and overheated way, entertaining.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.

CAPSULE: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth E. Schuch

FEATURING: Ilirida Memedovski, Kitty Fenn, Suzan Crowley, Kathryn Browning

PLOT: A young woman is brought to a convent to protect her from an unspecified danger. There, she explores both her emerging spirituality and womanhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Schuch’s movie relies heavily on a theological flavor of “magic realism”. While it explores various fringe topics—(clerical) sisterhood, puberty, paganism, and suicide—using a variety of stylish techniques, it doesn’t push boundaries as far as it should, and ultimately doesn’t adequately explore the various narrative avenues it goes down.

COMMENTS: Director Elizabeth Shuch cannot be accused of lacking in ideas. With her directorial debut, she touches on many. So many that I feel compelled to type (some of) them out, bullet-style:

  • The intersection between Femininity and Christianity.
  • The intersection between Christianity and Paganism.
  • The intersection between Paganism and Femininity.
  • Coming of age, first love, and suicide.

Throughout The Book of Birdie, Shuch touches on all these topics while maintaining a precarious narrative thread.

Our story begins in a dying convent consisting of a dozen or so nuns. Young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) has been brought there for the protection and (ostensible) comfort that a life of wholesome religiosity may bring. Birdie integrates with her new wards slowly, but surely, while also making acquaintance (then friendship, then love) with Julia, the daughter of the convent’s groundskeeper. Birdie learns prayers, attends services, and sees the ghosts of two dead nuns haunting the convent. After staining her bedding with a heavy menstrual flow, things become slightly more unreal.

Arthouse film techniques abound. There are long shots of Birdie’s entrancingly dark eyes. Ephemeral lighting illuminates the inside of the compound while the bleak sun saturates the outdoors. Stylized animations of symbolic imagery are seamlessly integrated. While the camera-work and editing flirt along the edge of heavy-handedness, they never fall into parody. The nun characters—both alive and dead—help to keep the film grounded in the reality of this hollowed-out haven. One enthusiastic nun in particular stands out. She confides her aspirations to Birdie: “I knew Jesus was the only man for me when I had my First Communion. I felt the wafer sizzle in my mouth and I felt him calling to me. Everything I’ve done since then has been to prepare me for a spiritual life. I want to be the best.” Unfortunately, it is Birdie who experiences the transcendence that this nun strives for—without even trying. The cause (effect?) of this transcendence brings me to a needful observation.

This film has a lot of blood in it. A lot of menstrual blood. It shows up in specks around the chapel, it shows up in trails, and it shows up in the small vials that Birdie fills with it and on occasion drinks from. She also crafts what I can only describe as a “fetus fetish” from porridge and stores it in vinegar. This entity comes to life on occasion, as does a statue of Christ—as do her reproductive organs, which we see escaping her body and flying off, like an angel. There is a mountain of symbolism of which, with my limited catechism, I can only understand fleeting hints.

The important question , though, is whether this works as a movie. To that I say, “Yes… mostly.” The performances are all tip-top and the limited scenery provides a real sense of a derelict, isolated haven. And, I suppose, the narrative moves from one point to the next, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I can’t help but feel that this movie is like an empty Chinese puzzle box. Fascinating to watch unfold, but ultimately yielding nothing. An ambiguously tragic life is explored with ambiguously theological symbols to bring us to an ambiguous, but tragic, ending. All spirit and no flesh, perhaps?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, glittery, feminine fever dream.”–Lindsay Pugh, Woman in Revolt (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: SITCOM (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Évelyne Dandry, , Adrien de Van, Lucia Sanchez

PLOT: The father of a bourgeois family brings home a white lab rat as a pet; taboos break and hilarity ensues as the rat has psychic (?) encounters with one family member after another.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I asked my Magic 8-Ball about the List prospects of this Metamorphosis-as-a-French-comedy-of-manners with spontaneous homosexual awareness, paraplegia-onset sadomasochism, a mysterious pet rat, and a steady stream of patrician epigrams: “Signs point to ‘Yes’.”

COMMENTS: The spirit of Luis Buñuel lives on with François Ozon’s ultra-French take on the family comedy, Sitcom. All the Buñuel boxes (or, “boîtes”, if I may) are checked down the line: upper-middle class family, domestic setting, the crumbling of norms. Playing like its titular genre, Sitcom relies heavily on its capacity for clever silliness, while subverting that self-same genre’s cliched “Family meets Challenge to finish with a Happy Ending.” The family here, however, careens immediately over the edge, the challenge comes in the form of a possibly paranormal rat, and the happy ending is ripped straight from ‘s long-forgotten “whimsical” period.

The unnamed father (François Marthouret) returns home one afternoon with a lab rat, adding a pet to his already very nuclear family. That evening a dinner party brings together the father, the mother (Évelyne Dandry), their son Nicolas (Adrien de Van), their daughter Sophie (Marina de Van), their Spanish maid María, and María’s Cameroonian husband, Abdu. Immediately beforehand, Nicolas has a moment alone with the rat, and at table he is restless until he announces out of the blue that he is homosexual. The mother recruits Abdu—a physical education teacher with experience counseling teenagers—to talk to her boy. As Abdu tries to work out his approach, he sees the rat, gets bitten by it, and then proceeds to help the son confirm his homosexuality in an altogether hands-on kind of way. In turn, each household member has his or her life-changing encounter with the rat.

While Sitcom is an ensemble piece, with each family member’s collapse and growth explored, the focus ends up, almost through omission, on the father. During his son’s discovery and embrace of homosexuality, his daughter’s failed suicide that turns her into both a paraplegic and a dyspeptic dominatrix, and his wife’s eventual seduction of the son, he remains impressively unflappable. When Sophie asks him if he knows about what happened between his wife and son, he remarks, “Of course”, adding, “I don’t think incest will solve the problems of Western Civilization, but your mother is an exceptional woman.” However, Sophie’s hopes of seducing her father are soon quashed when he admits he does not find her attractive. Having only aphoristic rejoinders to scandalous revelations, the father figure remains something of a cypher.

One hint is given during the opening dinner scene. The father delivers a monologue about the Ancient Greeks, musing, “Homosexuality was an institution with no shame.” Here’s a man who is quite probably gay himself, but he retreats into the trappings of bourgeois convention. And Ozon somehow litters other contemplative and tender moments throughout the zany norm-breaking silliness. Maria comforts Sophie’s much put-upon boyfriend in an NC-17+ kind of way in one scene, and things are kept impressively platonic as Nicolas washes his sister’s hair while talking about his encounter with their mother, both naked in the tub together. And so it goes. I’m not certain on the particulars of how I stumbled across this movie during college, but I saw it around the same time as Visitor Q. That’s appropriate, as I cannot think of two more feel-good family comedies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Francois Ozon’s absurd, outre “Sitcom” rips a page straight from the Luis Bunuel handbook of bourgeois contempt and writes a novella of relentless sociosexual ludicrousness brought to a Guignol head by the lab rat who’s moved in with the suburban family under siege… Ozon is seemingly attracted to our pop garbage, jamming a few sticks of Acme TNT in the structural silliness of our sitcoms and watching it go ‘boom.'” –Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)