All posts by El Rob Hubbard

CAPSULE: BLISS (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Ray Lawrence

FEATURING: Barry Otto, Lynette Curran, Helen Jones, Miles Buchanan, Gia Carides

PLOT: Harry Joy, an ad-executive and raconteur, has a near-death experience after a heart attack, and afterwards starts to see himself as living in Hell. He attempts to reform, but comes into conflict with his family. He finds a kindred spirit in Honey Barbara, a hippie girl in the City to sell marijuana to support her commune, but can Harry overcome the pull of his old life and find love?

Still from Bliss (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are touches, mainly in the imagery, it’s not full-on weird in concept or themes.

COMMENTS: Bliss is a story about stories: how stories affect one’s environment and how stories can save one’s life. Both Peter Carey (author of the original novel) and Ray Lawrence worked in advertising—storytelling used to sell something. Bliss is an expiation and penance for that life. At its core, it’s a story of a man’s mid-life crisis: he has a heart attack, dies, is revived and takes stock of his life, seeing himself as living in Hell, and works to atone.

At the time of its release, some compared it to Terry Gilliam‘s work, specifically Brazil. Some of the absurdist touches to illustrate the hellishness of Harry’s life (roaches skittering out of his chest incision, his wife’s infidelity symbolized by fish dropping from her crotch onto the floor) make that comparison sort of understandable, solely due to the use of imagery.

But with some 30 years of perspective, it’s a very superficial—and somewhat wrong—comparison. Now we see that Bliss anticipated “Mad Men,” and can be seen as a more focused and compact distillation of the thematic concerns of the show, only without the period setting and detail. Also, Bliss‘ Harry Joy is a far more sympathetic character we identify with, and his journey does come to a conclusion, rather than ending in ironic ambiguity.

HOME VIDEO INFO: Bliss was available on VHS from New World Video in the mid 1980’s, and to date is the only home video release in North America. In 2010, an all-region DVD was released with both the theatrical version and Director’s Cut, as well as a commentary with Lawrence and producer Anthony Buckley, but it appears to be out-of-print at this date.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Ray Lawrence milks the absurdity of the surreal situations for laughs and pathos in a take-no-prisoners style that challenges audiences’ tolerance for eccentricity.”–Michael Betzold, AllMovie

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Bliss Rewatched – a Guardian article about the film

Original trailer for Bliss

CAPSULE: FELIDAE (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Schaack

FEATURING: Voices of Ulrich Tukur, Mario Adorf, Wolfgang Hess, Helge Schneider, Mona Seefried, Klaus Maria Brandauer

PLOT: Francis, a housecat who has relocated to a new neighborhood with his human, stumbles into a mystery involving a strange cult, nefarious characters, and a feline serial killer. Still from Felidae (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a neo-noir/serial killer story where most, if not all, of the main characters are cats might qualify as “weird”—and, I admit, it’s a mighty thin line—the events and behavior involved aren’t surreal. They are just seen from a different perspective than we’re used to, to force us to consider our own behavior.

COMMENTS: “What I was watching wasn’t exactly a scene out of ‘The Aristocats’.”

Coming after feline members of a cult electrocute themselves in spiritual thrall, that line’s a definite understatement—and a cheekily self-aware one at that. Although the animation style is reminiscent of Don Bluth’s films, Felidae‘s approach to the material is more closely modeled on the adaptations of the Richard Adams novels Watership Down and The Plague Dogs. Perhaps not that surprising, since this story is also based on a literary allegory: in this instance, a book by Akif Pirinçci.

Felidae is a very good pastiche of film noir detective tropes: the dogged investigator, his reluctant friend/sidekick, moronic thugs, the ‘Good Girl’ who becomes a victim and the driving force for the investigator to pursue the case to the end, the ‘Bad Girl’ who appears to be a distraction but ends up being an integral piece of the puzzle, colorful characters adding flavor, and a nemesis who thoroughly pays off on the buildup. It also deals in the dark subject matter of noir: the violence and cruelty of life, religion and how it ends up being a tool of control, grisly farce, and sex… lots of sex. Placing those events in the world of cats, domesticated and feral, just strengthens the critique of human society, and adds another subject to the mixture: animal testing and its cruelty.

When it comes to quality animation intended for an adult audience, you have to look overseas and be prepared to do some digging.  Aside from Japanese anime, a piece in this genre won’t get much exposure to a North American audience except at a few film festivals, if it’s lucky. Felidae would’ve been a tough sell in America; in addition to a serial killer mystery with eugenics being the main key, there’s lots of violence, a sex scene, a couple of standout nightmare set pieces, and graphic depictions of animal experimentation—all with the look of a nice animated film with cats.

Felidae never got a release in North America. Although an English dub was prepared, it was only released in Australia, with the voice cast not credited (the IMDB list for the English voices is highly suspect). There was a R2 DVD release which had both the German and English language tracks, plus extras like a commentary and a “Behind the Scenes” featurette (in German only), but that is now OOP and going for high prices on the secondary market. YouTube searches turn up copies in German with English subs, or the English dubbed version. It would be great if Felidae gets rediscovered and issued on home video like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs were recently.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an imaginative, disturbing and ex-tremely adult thriller… Francis’ violent nightmares provide the most outrageously surreal images since the golden age of Bakshi.”–Stephen Puchalski, Shock Cinema (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Felidae was scored by Anne Dudley (Art of Noise) and featured a theme song co-written & sung by George O’ Dowd (AKA Boy George), which did get an OST release.

There are eight books in the Felidae series, though only three of the books have been translated to English. The author, Akif Pirinçci, has recently been mired in controversy, which led to both his German & American publishers cancelling his contracts and no longer selling his books. Still from Felidae (1994)

THE JACQUES RIVETTE COLLECTION

Included in the set:

Duelle (1976)

Noroit (1976)

Merry-Go-Round (1978/1983)

Still from Duelle (1976)
Scene from “Duelle” (1976)

It’s heartening that lived long enough to witness a renewed interest in his work, and a resurgence in its availability, before his death in early 2016. Part of the group of directors who ushered in the French New Wave (along with Truffaut, , Rohmer, and Chabrol), Rivette made two features, Paris Belongs To Us (1961) and La Religieuse [The Nun] (1967) before changing his working methods. Influenced by an interview with , the events of May 1968, and improvisational theater, this shift towards improvised performance and experimentation resulted in L’amour Fou [Mad Love] (1969) and in pushing the aesthetic further with Out 1 (1970), followed by Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

A good portion of his films are available on DVD, although some of those were not the original versions (usually cut by the distributors due to time restraints). Fortunately, that situation is now being rectified by releases such as this one, which concentrates on some of Rivette’s 1970’s output that’s been difficult to view since the films’ initial release.

The films in the collection were the result of Rivette re-teaming with the producer of Out 1, Stephane Tchal Gadjieff, to do four films that were planned to be loosely interconnected. As events played out, only two related films, Duelle and Noroit, were made; a third was started, but production stalled and was abandoned. One more film, Merry-Go-Round, was completed in 1978, but didn’t see a release until 1983.

Duelle and Noroit were shot back-to-back, and as part of the planned four film cycle, the interconnections are very strong. An integral part of both films is the use of live music performed by musicians onscreen, and both involve an element of fantasy. Unlike Rivette’s previous two films, which utilized improvisation from the actors, these were scripted.

Duelle plays as a conglomeration of , influenced by (notably The Seventh Victim) and , with a subtle fantastical element. It starts out as a thriller involving a search for a valuable gemstone, but events turn out to be orchestrated by two opposing supernatural adversaries—the Daughter of the Sun (Bulle Oglier) and the Daughter of the Moon (Juliet Berto)—engaged in a battle-by-proxy utilizing mortals as pawns.

Noroit is a somewhat loose adaptation of the Jacobean play “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” cast as a pirate adventure and the major roles gender-flipped towards women. Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) with the help of her accomplice, Erika (Kika Markham), plots and enacts revenge against a group of pirates, led by Giulia (Bernadette Lafont). It also has roots in elements of Duelle, as more preternatural events occur by film’s end.

Merry-Go-Round retains the live-music-performed-onscreen element of the previous two films, but downplays, if not completely eliminates, the fantasy. Two strangers, Ben () and Leo (Maria Schneider) are in Paris to meet a mutual friend—Leo’s sister Elisabeth—who does not show up. They band together to locate her, which leads them all around Paris where they encounter a variety of characters who may have some connection to Leo’s (presumably) dead father and a small fortune of 20 million francs. It sounds straightforward, but there’s also what appear to be disconnected side narratives of Leo and Ben, set on a beach and in a forest, in conflict with one another.

As a whole, this set provides a look at some fascinating, yet flawed films; which, one could argue is part of the charm of Rivette’s work. If your introduction to Rivette was Celine and Julie Go Boating (criminally still not available in the U.S. on disc), and you felt adventurous enough to see what the fuss was over Out 1, then this collection is the logical next step in your Rivette study. If you haven’t seen any of his films, I’d recommend seeing Celine and Julie and Out 1 first before jumping into the Collection.

The Arrow Films limited edition boxset includes both Blu-ray and DVD discs for the films, along with a booklet with essays from Jonathan Rosenbaum, Mary M. Wiles, Brad Stevens and Nick Pinkerton. Extras include Scenes From A Parallel Life, a featurette featuring an archival interview with Rivette about the films; interviews with actresses Bulle Oglier and Hermine Karagheuz; and an interview with Rosenbaum. The UK release also included Out 1 in the set, but as Carlotta Films had the rights for the U.S. release, the US set contains only the three films mentioned.

CAPSULE: A DARK SONG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Liam Gavin

FEATURING: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker

PLOT: Sophia enlists the aid of occultist Joseph to perform a ritual to contact her dead son; isolated in a house in Wales, the result could end up costing them both their lives and souls.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a very good story involving magick (used and abused), shifting power dynamics, and ultimately grief and forgiveness. But despite the presence of the occult, the handling doesn’t qualify as “weird.”

COMMENTS: A Dark Song is a small masterpiece of that sub-genre referred to as “folk horror.” There are no big set pieces or jump scares to satisfy the casual horror film viewer, but rather the slow, creeping dread found in smaller films like those of , Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, or British television works such as the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations. Song is a chamber piece with two main characters in an enclosed space, and its main asset is atmosphere.

It’s also notable in grounding its mystical elements into a mundane reality. Magick may indeed exist, but it’s not easy. The ritualism involved in their endeavor is stringent, very disciplined, and time-consuming… it’s work. Therefore when certain events start happening later in the film, it tilts the ambiguity that threads though the first part into definite occult territory.

Part of that ambiguity is in the relationship of Sophia and Joseph—which never descends into a romantic one, to the film’s credit—but does bring up observations on power and consent. One could consider their relationship as student and teacher (or adept and mentor), but an undercurrent suggests that Joseph may not be what he seems, and could just be taking advantage of Sophia. The story doesn’t degenerate into a simple battle of the sexes scenario due to the performances of the actors. Both characters aren’t entirely likeable, but Sophia is more developed. Joseph remains somewhat of a cipher: although he does have an authoritative weight, his motives remain unclear. He has the knowledge and also the arrogance of those who like to lord it over those without it, and he doesn’t hold himself to the standard that he demands from Sophia, which ends up determining his fate.

Sophia’s story—wanting to communicate with her dead son—is the driving force of the film. Her grief has brought her to this extreme, and she is quite willing to go further, which leads her to the point of choosing either salvation or damnation in the film’s final act.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gavin creates psychological terror that exploits our anxieties with symbolism, nuance and innuendo. That purposeful ambiguity involves the viewer more intimately and increases the power of the story.”–Colin Covert, The Minneapolis Star Tribune (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: RUPTURE (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

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

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

Still from Rupture (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

CAPSULE: TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Miguel Ferrer, Chrysta Bell, James Belushi, Robert Knepper, , , , , , Al Strobel, Carel Struycken, , David Lynch

PLOT: Picking up twenty-five years after the events of “Twin Peaks” and Fire Walk with Me, life has continued for most of the small town’s residents; but things are afoot which once again will involve the FBI and Agent Cooper and a mystery involving “the strange forces of existence.”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As noted in the earlier capsule on Twin Peaks, “it’s a TV series“. However, I’d like to put forth the case that the entire Twin Peaks universe—the original 90’s series, the feature Fire Walk With Me, and “The Return”—should be treated as one whole project instead of as separate entities and as such, should be considered as a contender for the List.

COMMENTS: In uncertain times, audiences and institutions like to choose the familiar, which may account for the numerous remakes and “reboots” of successful material from the past (witness the return of “X-Files” and “Will & Grace,” to name just a couple). Most of these are obvious cash grabs, empty and unrepentant. When it was announced in late 2014 that David Lynch and Mark Frost would be bringing “Twin Peaks” back to television, however, speculation was wild and expectation high on what that result would be, especially as it went from a proposed nine episodes to an eighteen-hour “feature film” and Showtime gave Lynch and Frost complete creative control.

It’s evident now that “Twin Peaks: The Return” (Showtime’s marketing title; Lynch and Frost have made it clear that they consider this “Season 3”) was in every way the Major Event that fans and critics had hoped it would be—but it was in no way what anyone expected. As the head of Showtime, David Nevins, told the press in early 2017, it was the “pure heroin version of David Lynch.” We had no idea.

Unfettered by the constraints of network television, instead of bringing fuzzy warm nostalgic memories of the original 90’s show to the forefront, Lynch and Frost opted for a true continuation, and also made it very contemporary to the current times (there is a small amount of nostalgia indulged in as things converge at the end, but it’s very brief). Going even further than he did with Fire Walk With Me, “The Return” is a culmination of tropes Lynch has employed throughout his career, but with an emphasis on his aesthetic post-Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive. Those who were expecting a straight return to the world of “damn good coffee” and doughnuts were thrown immediately, and it drove almost everyone watching from May to September crazy in attempts to “figure out” where the show was heading.

It’s twenty-five years later and characters have aged, and changed. Continue reading CAPSULE: TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017)

275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

“God gave him a calling in life, and that was to make pornography.”–George Kuchar on Curt McDowell

DIRECTED BY: Curt McDowell

FEATURING: Marion Eaton, Melinda McDowell, Moira Benson, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Rick Johnson, Maggie Pyle,

PLOT: On a dark and stormy night in the Nebraska hinterlands, several individuals on the road end up taking shelter at “Prairie Blossom”, an old dark house that is the dominion of alcoholic matron Gert Hammond (Eaton). Everyone present has secrets and obsessions that are brought to light, and pair off in various combinations for sexual liaisons. The group also finds itself trapped inside the house by a gorilla rampaging outside.

Still from Thundercrack! (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Producers John Thomas (who briefly appeared as country singer Simon Cassidy) and Charles Thomas were film students of Thundercrack! actor/writer George Kuchar, classmates of director Curt McDowell, and heirs to a fortune from the Burger Chef fast food chain, which they used to fund the movie. They also provided a rooms in their home for the shoot.
  • George Kuchar was a legend in the underground film industry, making hundred of short, campy avant-garde films together with his twin brother Mike. Noteworthy titles include Sins of the Fleshapoids and Hold Me While I’m Naked (both from 1966).
  • Actress Melinda McDowell was director Curt McDowell’s sister.
  • Kuchar and McDowell were rumored to be lovers.
  • The movie was shot for $9,000 and $40,000 in deferred costs.
  • Buck Henry used his clout as a judge to set up a (scandalous) screening at the 1976 Los Angeles Film Festival.
  • The original negatives disappeared and only five 16mm prints of the film were struck. One print was seized by Canadian authorities and three had been edited in an ineffectual attempt to make the film more marketable. The badly-damaged but uncut fifth print was primarily utilized for the transfer of the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release by Synapse Films.
  • El Rob Hubbard’s 1)Fun Fact: actress “Maggie Pyle” and her husband (one of the crew members) were my landlords for a short time in San Francisco in the early 90’s. Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Among the various obvious (and mainly pornographic) images to choose from, the one that sums up the spirit of Thundercrack! is the publicity photo of Gert and Bing in a melodramatic clinch—Bing in a wedding dress, Gert staring off into the horizon. It’s iconic, yet subversive, and pretty much encapsulates the film’s mood.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Versatile cucumbers; pickled husbands; amorous bipeds

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The collision of several elements: the lurid melodramatics along with the hardcore action, the visual stylization and the complex wordplay, all combine to make a film much more engaging and—dare I say it—innocent than one would expect from a mid 1970s hardcore sex parody film. Or, is it a parody film with porno elements? You decide…


Brief scene from Thundercrack!

COMMENTS: “What the heck is going on here—some sort of communal therapy group? Is that what this is?!!”—Bing

That’s probably a fair assessment of Thundercrack!, Curt McDowell’s Continue reading 275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

References   [ + ]

1. Fun Fact: actress “Maggie Pyle” and her husband (one of the crew members) were my landlords for a short time in San Francisco in the early 90’s.