All posts by Giles Edwards

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

CAPSULE: SHIRKERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Sandi Tan

FEATURING: Sandi Tan, Jasmine Kin Kia Ng, Sophia Siddique Harvey, Georges Cardona

PLOT: In the summer 1992, Sandi Tan and her friends filmed “Shirkers”, only to have their would-be feature debut spirited away by their enigmatic guru, Georges Cardona.

COMMENTS: A quick look at IMDb will show you that Georges Cardona was not involved in the production of Apocalypse Now. And though one of his protegés was involved in making Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Georges was not, nor was it possible that he was the basis of James Spader’s character Graham. Georges was not born on a ship heading out from Germany in 1949. What his life actually consisted of was stories, stories he would tell to anyone who would listen—and many did, including Sandi Tan. Something of an awkward teenager, Sandi felt repressed by her Singaporean upbringing, and felt liberated by the transcendental intellectual attraction and attention from Georges Cardona, a mysterious film teacher who believed in her as much as he probably believed in his own fabricated history.

But Shirkers is not about Georges Cardona. It is a movie memoir about Sandi and her friends Jasmine and Sophia, who did the unthinkable in Singapore in 1992. With no training and no money, but with superhuman drive and ever-percolating minds, Sandi & Co. filmed a story about a strange collector of people, titled “Shirkers.” Shirkers, the documentary about that film’s strange production history, is the director’s personal recollections and interviews with those involved, spliced with footage from the original project along with various contemporary private recordings, many featuring Georges Cardona: one of the most mysterious entities to grace a film, as well as a mystical influence in lives of many filmmakers and storytellers.

Shirkers is a masterful documentary. The facts behind the whole mystery-shebang would have been adequate to keep my attention without any bells, hooks, and whistles, but Sandi Tan proves as adept at spinning a yarn as she is at documenting her life over the past quarter century. The flow is constantly interrupted by asides, proliferating like branches of narrative that miraculously reconverge by the story’s end. Her narration suggests fragility, and at times resignation, but beneath her entire recounting one can hear a strength of character, forged in no small part by the fools-gold Svengali whom she met at her most impressionable stage in life. Sandi’s reunion with her two dear friends after so many years of intermittent contact feel genuine, because her friends pull no punches when reminiscing about that fraught and bizarre summer of their early adulthood.

Again, this isn’t the story of Georges Cardona. But he is the central prop—the elephant in the story that cannot be ignored, but cannot be perceived except in pieces, like in the parable of the blind men. Georges insinuated himself into the lives of young and talented raconteurs, but in the case of Sandi Tan, Shirkers is her story, and how she managed to live her own life despite this massive weight of egocentric mystery that encumbered her for decades.

Shirkers is a Netflix exclusive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s no counting the creative projects begun in youth that have been abandoned, forgotten, scrapped. Sandi Tan’s bears the weird and painful distinction of having been stolen.” -Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HATCHING (2022)

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Hatching is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

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DIRECTED BY: Hanna Bergholm

FEATURING: Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä

PLOT: Tinja’s focus on her upcoming gymnastic competition is compromised after a giant egg she has been hiding from her family cracks open to reveal a monstrous bird.

COMMENTS: Tinja is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, her brother is an under-diagnosed brat of a boy, the father is the embodiment of self-destructive acquiescence, and mother has a blog about their “lovely everyday life.” Forget the giant egg for a moment and contemplate that the real horror going on in Hatching is the diminution of mental stability behind the scenes of a stereotypically “happy” Finnish family. Gauzy cinematography draws the viewer into a a fragile picture of perfection that, within the opening minutes, is shattered by the visit of an errant crow—literally, as it crashes into the precarious Living Room objets, and metaphorically, when the matriarch, determined to let nothing compromise her vision of domestic perfection, coldly snaps its neck.

With a metaphor this obvious, it’s a good thing that Hatching delivers on all the peripherals. Siiri Solalinna’s performance is right on the mark as twelve-year-old Tinja, a girl reckoning with burgeoning womanhood, a domineering mother, a speedily growing egg, and then a strange and horrific creature she adopts as her own child. This massive and grossly misproportioned bird beast has an appearance, as they say, that only a mother could love. Tinja looks past its skeletal form, its unsavory goo, irregularly-sized arms, and giant-eyed, scraggle-toothed face and sees something to love, providing it with an affection that her own mother is all too sparing with.

As with any horror film, things go from bad to worse, with Tinja powering through her trials at school, her suffocation at home, and the discovery of her mother’s infidelity with Tero, a classically handsome, manly counterpoint to her own “soft” father. In this oppressive world, it is these two father figures (Tero and actual father) who provide the only scintillas of genuine support and approval that Tinja seeks. Her mother’s burning impulse for control and projected flawlessness dominates. By the film’s third act, when Tinja is clearly on the brink of mental collapse, the most comfort her mother can muster is the reassurance, “You know the best way to get rid of stress? Winning the competition.” Tinja’s internalization of her own growing diffidence, distress, and depression manifests itself in her own “daughter,” the creature she hatched, which, despite its appearance and behavior, is the only other character who elicits sympathy. It is a primal, reactive beast: when a neighbor’s dog keeps Tinja up at night? It has a solution, proffering the headless canine to Tinja the next morning as a gift.

As her mother’s life collapses, the pressure on Tinja ratchets up further, and Tinja’s own “daughter” grows more and more into the girl’s image. The blood and goo are front and center, with these instances adroitly acting only as occasional punctuation to the mundane, spirit-crushing happenings of daily life. The film feels like an ancient dark fairy tale upon which director Hanna Bergholm shines a glaring modern spotlight, rendering it all the more unnerving.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…think of it as the weird lovechild of ‘American Beauty’ and a grotesque version of ‘E.T.,’ with the uncanny touch of Yorgos Lanthimos.”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ALIENS, CLOWNS, & GEEKS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Elfman

FEATURING: Bodhi Elfman, Rebecca Forsythe, Steve Agee, French Stewart

PLOT: Clown aliens, green aliens, Chinese gangsters, and government agents are all keen to get their hands on a mysterious obelisk that emerged from Eddy’s ass; Eddy would gladly be spared the bother.

Still from Aliens, Clowns & Geeks (2019)

COMMENTS: Depending upon your threshold for staggering silliness, Aliens, Clowns, & Geeks will either repel you right away, or draw you in like a frisky fly to a custard pie. The menu is baked in the title, and the chef of this mad meal is spray-painted in candy right there for all to see. This is an Elfman film. Oingo Boingo’s Richard Elfman wrote and directed it, Richard’s boy Bodhi stars in it, Bodhi’s uncle Danny composed the score, Danny’s sister-in-law Anastasia co-stars, and assorted B-movie luminaries flesh out the surrounding cast to deliver as non-stop an outing into fun-time idiocy as I’ve seen since the ’90s.

Overcoming the threat of further nostalgia, I’ll nip it in the bud with this: that innocent decade is where AC&G belongs. This film exists in a permeating atmosphere of un-thought-out nonsensicality and naïve whimsy, teetering along the slicked edge of guffaw and “Good God, why…?” Eddy Pine is a charmless actor and—scratch that, I’ll let him speak for himself: “My mother’s a junkie whore. My father’s an alien from outer space. Killer clowns are out to get me. My asshole’s the portal to the Sixth Dimension – and they cancelled my fucking series! Do you really think everything’s going to be ok?” The first part of Eddy’s lament summarizes the story. As for his question, I spoil no thinking-person’s anticipations by stating here and now: Yes, everything’s going to be okay. Because the Elfmans (Elfmen?) are in charge here.

There were innumerable moments where I half-conceived the thought, “Oh, just move on from this stup-”; but, by the time I had nearly formulated my kvetch, they had moved on. On the outside chance that the on-screen clowning, both literal and figurative, wasn’t enough to keep kicking the antics along, the score reliably schlepps the actors and audience into the next schtick. (Some quick math has just informed me that 83% of the proceedings have full-blown Elfman scoring, heightening the descent into Elfmania.)

Further reflection on ACG does summon hazy complaints about how very little of it actually works; but for this film, reflection is the enemy. While watching, one does not have time to think about what’s going on—such as why the two smokin’ hot Swedes fall for -lite Bodhi, or how Doctor von Scheisenberg (“sh*t mountain”) knows so much about the 18” plinth from Eddy’s posterior—and that is for the best. Just kick back and let the Elfman clan administer an invigorating seltzer-blast into your eyeball.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Elfman’s Aliens, Clowns, & Geeks is 86 minutes of weird, strange silliness.” -Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FRIEND OF THE WORLD (2020)

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Friend of the World is available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Brian Patrick Butler

FEATURING: Alexandra Slade, Nick Young

PLOT: The lone survivor of a mass-execution awakens in a bunker to find that an eccentric ex-military survivalist is her only company.

Still from friend of the world (2020)

COMMENTS: There is a small detail I’ve often noticed concerning low-budget films: they are either stuffed to the gills with smartphones, or such technology is mysteriously absent. Such dystopias fall broadly into two categories: “we’re all connected, and it’s horrible”; or, “once we may have all been connected, but a terrible event occurred, and it’s horrible.” Given a choice, I’d opt for the latter—which is to Friend of the World’s credit.

Taking place (almost) exclusively in an underground warren of rummaged-through rooms and cluttered corridors, Friend absolutely nails the claustrophobia of subterranean survivalism. Faces regularly dominate the frame, both skewing the sense of scale as well as bringing the characters’ personality extremes to the fore. “General” Gore (his claim to the title is questionable) dominates his frames, with one of those expressive—even “burly”—faces found on military blowhards through much of cinema’s history; Diane Keaton (no, not that one) is a millennial who survived a nasty massacre of many in her age group. Gore saves her, sort of, and then he saves her when they’re exposed to an unspecified-but-ubiquitous disease. Sort of. Then, hallucinations start. (You guessed it… Sort of.)

Friend‘s strengths, and weaknesses, are the double-edged swords of exiguous narrative, exaggerated performances, and elevated Art-Housery. Nick Young, who plays the gruff old-timer who never met a young person he could take seriously, had better be a stalwart of his local am-dram society. Half the time his bitter excesses are what’s needed, the other half, well, to quote a cohort he dislikes, are a bit “meh.” Innovative body horror spices up the proceedings with regularity (or at least as often as might be hoped for over a fifty-minute movie)—I’ve never seen one man excreted, fully formed, out of another’s back. The story contains an unclear sociopolitical agenda that is enthusiastically conveyed through audio cassette and Super-8 within the story. And then… well, it just kind of ends.

So I will, too.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hybridised blend of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Friend of the World is low in budget, but big in ideas, mystifying the viewer with its surreally lysergic adventures in underland.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

(This movie was nominated for review by Dan B., who described it as “…a bizarre, dialogue driven story that follows two complete opposite characters working out their differences while finding their way through a body-horror post-apocalyptic bunker.. a surreal and absurd existential trip into madness with elements of social satire, scifi and horror.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

27*. MAD GOD (2021)

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“If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you.” -God, Leviticus 26:27–30

DIRECTED BY: Phil Tippett

FEATURING: Alex Cox

PLOT: Condemned by God, Humankind yet survives. In an effort to destroy the deity, a lone explorer laden with explosives is sent to unfathomable depths. The assassin must survive Hell on Earth to complete his mission.

Mad God (2021)
– Mad God – Photo Credit: Shudder

BACKGROUND:

  • Phil Tippett is a sought-after effects man who’s worked on multiple Hollywood blockbusters. He began his career with the original Star Wars film in the “Miniatures and Optical Effects” unit, and was possibly the first-ever credited “Dinosaur Supervisor” for his work on Jurassic Park.
  • Mad God was three decades in the making, crafted by Tippett and his workshop between paid projects.
  • With the advent of CGI, Tippett nearly abandoned his hopes of completing his stop-motion opus. A KickStarter campaign helped to fund the film’s completion. He also received assistance from film students he met giving guest lectures.
  • Mad God premiered at Locarno on August 5th, 2021, garnering Tippett the festival’s Vision Award Ticinomoda, which “highlights and pays tribute to someone whose creative work has contributed to renew the cinematographic imaginary.” The film also won the Audience Choice Award at the 2021 L’Étrange Festival, which as its name suggests is no stranger to weird cinema, as well as the “Most Groundbreaking Film” and “Best Animated Feature” trophies at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Putting the viewer through a viscerally agonizing and philosophically despairing grinder for eighty-three minutes, Mad God is wholly indelible. It is a harsh viewing experience, and so its few moments of tenderness stand out like flowers atop a mound of sullied corpses. When the unnamed explorer has a fleeting moment of connection with a doomed fiber-man, Mad God reminds the viewer that in life, there is hope—perhaps even in Hell.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Toothy baby-talk overseer; Day-Glo death garden

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stop-motion, theological nihilism, and a panorama of horrid wonder in every frame make Mad God one of the most visually intense experiences ever to be unleashed in cinema. Phil Tippett’s dedication to the craft, coupled with his deep knowledge of ecumenical imagery and fearless depiction of despair, makes his deeply personal movie a non-stop spectacle of exquisite hideousness.


Trailer for Mad God

COMMENTS: This mad God is the incarnation of sadistic capriciousness—a giggling, infantile entity, seen only via display screens: babbling mouth with stained teeth, and blood-shot eyes. Fibrous humanoids, forged from the defecation of bound and tortured creatures, operate a horrific machine. Exhausted upon creation, they Continue reading 27*. MAD GOD (2021)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels (Part One), Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Part Two), Paloma Baeza (Part Three)

FEATURING: Voices of , , Jarvis Cocker, Susan Wakoma, Helena Bonham Carter

PLOT: Designed by an eccentric 19th-century architect, a magnificent house traps and torments a series of owners over the centuries.

COMMENTS: This unusual house has three stories. The first is classically unsettling, the second is downright creepy, and the third is charmingly hokey. Each story’s physical structure is ever-changing, as the house is built, re-built, and re-built, then is infested and decays, finally embracing its ephemeral nature. From its loftily sinister beginnings as a macro-doll’s house up through its final untethering from its foundations, the titular mansion houses three separate visions: one man’s cruel infliction of nightmarish doom; one man’s mental disintegration as he attempts to tame the decaying edifice; and one woman’s spiritual liberation. Each director provides a unique touch, but each tale fits together, creating a narrative arc that morphs into an arc of redemption.

The chronicle begins with a house within a home. A doll’s house, that is. Mabel’s immediate family has fallen from grace, and a troupe of off-putting relatives chastise them. That night, her father gets drunk and wanders angrily through the woods, only to stumble across an illuminated sedan chair, the luxurious transport housing the altogether-too-creepy architect, Van Schoonbeek (“clean stream”, one of the most subtle bits of foreshadowing I’ve seen), who promises Mabel’s family a beautiful new place to live. But as is so often the case, midnight rendezvous with giggling fatcats lead to terror and lamentation.

The House dodges the bullet typical of anthology films in that, unlike the physical structure, none of the sections are weak. Their tenor differs, as well as their style. The first features unnerving felt-made people, the latter two anthropomorphic animals. The dark shadows of Mabel’s section become marvelously lit, and tackily modern, in the second segment. An unnamed “Developer” (perfectly voiced by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as an at-his-wits’-end handy-rat; he also provides the closing credit’s song) begins falling part as he repairs the now-dilapidated house in the hopes of selling it off. Fate is as unkind to him as it was to the first owners—albeit with a modern twist. Part two climaxes with an intricately choreographed club-jazz dance of fabric beetles and a run-in with the law after the Developer’s dentist, sick of being telephoned at all hours and called “sweet-heart” and “dear,” sends the police around to the hapless rat realtor.

The House breaks no new ground, and much of the spook-or-creep factor relies on old fashioned methods: light-play, musical cues, background laughter, scuttles, wriggles, and poofs of poison. But it all works more than well enough. I was not unpleasantly transported in mind to that special place I can end up when emerging from a well-crafted film experience. It is worth noting the third segment, which differs sharply from the first two. It’s the story of the final owner, and of her desire for her home clashing with a subconscious itch for freedom. Helena Bonham Carter’s hippy cat performance is relief-through-whimsy (she pays rent with potent crystals), and she is the perfect guide for the frazzled young owner. The House‘s first two acts scrabble in the darker corners of the mind, but when the sun breaks through the finale’s mists, I could feel the haunting memories begin to recede.

The House is exclusive to Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a consistent anthology, in that it’s always just about the same level of surreal, playful, sadistic, and entertaining. Across its different styles and species, The House never holds the audience’s hand when it comes to the poetic flourishes from its mighty gradual pacing; it prefers to be odd…” -Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel

FEATURING: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau

PLOT: After marrying on a whim in Switzerland, Stefan and Valerie find themselves in a grand hotel where the mysterious Countess Báthory and her companion Ilona are the only other guests.

COMMENTS: It’s just as well that Olstend’s “Grand Hotel Thermes” is nearly empty during the off season—its cavernous hallways, regal stairways, and spacious suites can barely contain the thick layers of Eurotrash that pile up the moment Stefan, Valerie, the Countess, and her “secretary” come in from the rain. This gang of sex-dripping ’70s stereotypes jostle with one another for the title of Maximus Libidinosus. Is it the new bride, Valerie, often topless and presenting an innocence that belies her eagerness? Is it creep-hunk Stefan, who nearly loses it when recounting the sadistic methods of a medieval Hungarian noblewoman? Is it deer-in-headlights Ilona, when she lingers in the nude outside of Valerie’s window the first night she meets her?

No, no, and no. This is Countess Elisabeth Báthory’s party, despite the fact she doesn’t appear until the second act. Aged somewhere between twenty-five and one-hundred or more, this long-lived, ever-beautiful femme out-fatales all the wavy-haired blonde bomb-shells that came before her. With cryptic mannerisms and more-cryptic asides, Delphine Seyrig owns the screen whenever she graces it, for better or worse. The jalopy of a plot putters along with just enough horsepower to sustain its goings on, which themselves have just enough obligatory allusions to a story that it could be argued to have one. But Daughters of Darkness is allegory, and a very lesbian kind of allegory. The “V” of seduction (with the Countess at the hub) may just as well conjure the word “vaginal”… or, if one is so inclined, “vampyre.” This is a gloriously shameless exploration of sapphic love, layered thick with electronic musical cues, heightened acting, colored lighting, and, whenever the filmmakers remember it, arcane overtones.

It’s a good midnight movie, with an atmosphere you could hang a heavy jacket on. But it is a product of its time, and its budget. Amidst the array of sensuality, sex, and sadism, there is one item that stands out, and which remained, perhaps woefully, underexplored. A key plot point—and impending film spoiler—involves Stefan’s reticence in telling his mother that he has married a young woman in Switzerland. The excuse for this trepidation is that his family is very aristocratic, and his mother would be damned before recognizing such an off-the-cuff flight of matrimonial whimsy. However, we finally meet Stefan’s mother at the film’s halfway point, and find him to be not quite what we might expect. A middle-aged man, in a woman’s lounging dress, decorated in make-up, reclining on a hammock in the middle of a conservatory. He describes Stefan’s wedding gambit not so much as inappropriate as “unrealistic”. Who is this? What are he and Stefan? And how about that butler kneeling for a much-appreciated pat on the head upon delivering Mother the telephone? No matter. Within moments, we’re back to the gauzy layers of obvious questions weaving gracefully around this new and unexpected one. Class, discuss.

Blue Underground released a remastered special edition Blu-ray of Daughters of Darkness in 2022 with three separate commentary tracks and numerous special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange and beautiful, it’s a perfect cocktail of the weird, the horrible, and the oh-so-sexy. “–Cait Kennedy, But Why Tho? (2020 festival rerelease)