All posts by El Rob Hubbard

ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR

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Severin Films. 15 disc set.

“Folk Horror” is a buzzword that has blossomed over the past decade to become a marketing phrase. It brings to mind things British, pagan and ancient/medieval, usually in that order. This makes for a nice narrow niche to categorize and sell to the audience; if a film has certain elements that are on the checklist checked off, it’s officially Folk Horror®.  The genre even has its Unholy Trinity: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General. Of course, with some digging, we find that there’s a lot more to the subject to beyond those tentpoles.

It’s a massive subject tackle, and we’re fortunate that the person taking it on is Kier-la Janisse (film-programmer/editor; founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Stories; author of “House of Psychotic Women“) with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021), a 192 minute documentary serving as a primer/immersion into Folk Horror. It’s the foundation for “All The Haunts Be Ours,” a massive boxs et with 19 feature films (some making their debut on Blu-ray) and tons of bonus material. In short, this is a college semester course compressed into 15 discs; and although it’s pricey, it’s a lot less than what one would be paying for an actual college class. This is the most ambitious box set  that Severin Films has done to date—and they’ve done collections of Al Adamson, Christopher Lee’s European Films, and Andy Milligan in just the past three years!

Woodlands (the first disc in the set, also available as a standalone release) comprehensively examines Folk Horror, beginning with its roots in folklore and literature and moving into film, starting with that Unholy Trinity and other British films, plus television programs like “The Owl Service,” “Children of the Stones,” “Doctor Who,” and the work of Nigel Kneale. The documentary then shifts to North America, examining it by region: New England (Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King); the South (influences of folk music and Evangelicalism), and the West (Native American lore). After that, the film goes global, focusing on horror in Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, addressing a lot of films you’ve heard of (Viy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and the Coffin Joe movies, to name just a few), along with many more that you probably haven’t.

For a 3+ hour documentary, you don’t feel the time drag, and you’ll spend a lot of time afterwards Google-searching availability of titles. Even though it’s a deep dive into the subject, it also feels like it’s just scratching the surface and not even close to being the Last Word in Folk Horror. The subject is thoroughly examined, and even though you could walk away with some sort of definition, “Folk Horror” doesn’t seem “defined” in a way that traps it in a box. It’s a fluid term Continue reading ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

Môsô dairinin 

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mamiko Noto, Shouzou Iizuka, Toshihiko Seki, Haruko Momoi (Japanese); Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O’ Brien, Carrie Savage (English dub)

PLOT: Toy designer Tsukiko Sagi, under tremendous pressure after creating an enormously successful character “Maromi,” is attacked by a bat-wielding boy on skates—dubbed “Li’l Slugger” (or “Shonen Bat”)—or so she claims. The two detectives assigned to the case have their doubts, but more attacks occur, and the victims appear to be connected, and all under some type of mental distress.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “Paranoia Agent” balances horror and humor adroitly, especially when seen from a perspective 20 years later. Aside from some minor points, the series doesn’t feel dated; it could have been generated within the past seven years. The credit sequence establishes the tone, with the main characters laughing hysterically despite their incongruous settings (underwater, in traffic, and before an atomic explosion, to name a few), while the upbeat theme song just adds to the unsettling nature.

“Paranoia has a stronger image than fantasy. Yes. Delusional, maybe. Right. The word gives an impression that a person is, in a sense… actively making himself delusional. That kind of strength is inherent in the word. Well, in order to go through life… everyone needs to have something apart from reality… such as fantasy, dream, or maybe paranoia. Otherwise, life can be surprisingly hard. Yes. The world as a person perceives… it is a world filtered through his fantasy or paranoia, I think. In that sense, I don’t think that fantasy and paranoia are necessarily unhealthy.”–Satoshi Kon

COMMENTS: For admirers of Satoshi Kon’s work, “Paranoia Agent” can be viewed as a grab bag or sampler of sorts. There are echoes from Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and you can see hints of Paprika (2006). “Paranoia Agent” grew out of concepts that did not develop into larger projects, and a proving ground for things that did show up later.

At the time of its creation and release, this miniseries could be read as social commentary on aspects of Japanese society in the early 2000s. Cellphones, the Internet and the beginnings of social media are present, providing plenty of distractions for people. The show is an effective commentary on fantasy vs. reality; as Modern Life becomes more unbearable, more and more people seek escape via fantasy. But “Paranoia Agent” underlines the necessity to live in reality, as escapist coping mechanisms are shown to be ultimately destructive. Some cultural aspects the show touches on, such as Denpa-kei Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

BOOK REVIEW: DAY OF THE LIVING ME: ADVENTURES OF A CULT FILMMAKER FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (2020)

Memoirs from filmmakers tend to be a mixed bag. The best ones balance useful and entertaining trivia pertinent to the field along with mildly salacious insider stories (AKA “gossip”). It’s an added bonus when they actually illuminate the career of people whose work you found interesting, but whom you didn’t really know much about.

Jeff Lieberman is one of those “interesting” filmmakers. His work may not consistently qualify as “weird,” but he has a cult following. He makes movies that are twisted and satirical, as anyone who has seen Blue Sunshine (1977), Squirm (1976), Just Before Dawn (1981), Remote Control (1988), or Satan’s Little Helper (2004) can attest. “Day of the Living Me” collects his reminisces of the making of those films; although not in extreme detail, there’s enough to satisfy the casual reader or fan of the films.

The most interesting anecdotes concern Lieberman’s life and career outside of these films. He started as an editing assistant at (pre-Golan-Globus) Cannon Films, then took a stint in advertising,  which inspired his award winning short satire “The Ringer.” He also worked at Janus Films (before their partnership with the Criterion Collection), repurposing their titles into new product. The insider bits include entertaining tales of working with Rod Serling and Sidney Poitier narrating documentaries; early encounters with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman; coming up with the concept of the ad campaign for Ken Russell‘s Tommy (1975); and how providing help on selling Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) led to a night out with George Burns. There’s plenty more, but those anecdotes should be left for the reader to discover.

Lieberman is an excellent raconteur. Even at 192 pages, the book feels like a solid read; it’s like spending an informal evening with someone who you already suspected was interesting, only to find out they’re even more fascinating than you imagined.

SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

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This essay discusses the recently-released “Cannes Cut” of Richard Kelly‘s cult satire, Southland Tales. You may want to refresh yourself by reading Alice Stoehr’s original review of the theatrical cut.

Fifteen years have passed since Southland Tales‘ premiere, and more than a decade since our first review of the theatrical cut. At that time, the verdict was “Borderline Weird.” Is Southland Tales an indulgent mess? Yes it is. There’s no way around that, and that’s probably a deal-breaker for most. But the film has a solid structure that holds seemingly disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, rather than a mish-mash. The Cannes Cut supports that view (though there will be those who will disagree, of course).

Most of Southland Tales problems come from it’s ambition: it was a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the iPod Generation. Kelly has stated that his original conception was to make something like one of those madcap romp/chase movies that were staples of 60’s cinema (so maybe more of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the iPod Generation?) The script acquired more of political angle after 9/11, however.

Southland Tales is a 10 -13 episode Netflix show, conceived before Netflix was even a player, stuffed into a 2 1/2 hour running time. There’s so much information to absorb, and Kelly didn’t help himself by filming this as the last three parts of a six-part tale! You don’t need a lot of backstory to enjoy Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (the prequel trilogy is therefore pretty useless, to be honest). But for Southland Tales, that background is necessary to fully understand the plot. Ths backstory is present, but in the Cannes Cut it plays out mainly in dialog and mise en scène; the viewer is thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to sink or swim. The theatrical cut, by contrast, attempted to provide some context and clarification, with the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” montage sequences incorporating panels from the graphic novel prequel. Still, I would also argue that the information overload in the Cannes Cut is intentional, and part of the humor. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension attempts the same trick, though its overload is fairly straightforward in comparison to Southland Tales.

The Cannes cut is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, 158 min versus 145 min, and I think that it plays slightly better; but I also don’t mind getting thrown into the deep end. Some of the CGI-fx work was not yet complete when the film debuted at Cannes (mainly some sweetening for the zeppelin, and extra damage in L.A. from the insurrection). Some scenes were later shifted around in the theatrical cut.  The movie’s over-the-top element is more pronounced in Continue reading SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

CAPSULE: “WILD PALMS” (1993)

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DIRECTED BY: Peter Hewitt (Ep. 1), Keith Gordon (Ep. 2 & 4), Kathryn Bigelow (Ep. 3), Phil Joanou (Ep. 5)

FEATURING: , Dana Delany, , Kim Cattrall, , , , Ernie Hudson, Ben Savage, Nick Mancuso

PLOT: L.A. in the year 2007: Harry Wyckoff (Belushi) is a patent attorney with a wife, Grace (Delany), son Coty (Savage), and a mute daughter, Deirdre. He ends up in the employ of Senator Kreutzer (Loggia) who owns the Wild Palms media group, heads the Church of Synthiotics, and is about to unveil a new VR process for TV. A former lover, Page Katz (Cattrall) asks Harry for help in locating her lost son, which leads Harry into a convoluted world of two warring political factions, the Fathers and the Friends, wrestling for control of the country. Wyckoff discovers he is an integral part of both factions’ plans for success.

Still from "Wild Palms" 1993

COMMENTS: The debut of “Twin Peaks” on network television in 1990 was a watershed moment. It furthered the possibilities of challenging material getting into the mainstream and finding a dedicated audience, and proved that television didn’t have to stick to a lesser aesthetic just because it was on a smaller screen. TV didn’t have to be considered a step down, a place where feature directors were put out to pasture before their careers died. The “Peaks” influence can still be felt some 30 years afterwards. Of course, once something has proven successful, others jump in hoping to get a piece of the pie. So it was inevitable that ABC, the network that took a chance on “Peaks,” would attempt to replicate that success—with stipulations, of course.

Which is how, more or less, how “Wild Palms” came into being. Created by Bruce Wagner (based on the comic he wrote that ran in Details Magazine) and executive produced by , ABC saw it as a safer bet than “Peaks.” Having learned from their experience with to set certain terms at the start—like the property having a definite beginning, middle and end—“Palms” was billed as an “event series,” running about five hours spread over five nights. Like “Peaks,” it had a healthy budget, a distinctive look, and an incredible cast and crew. But “Palms” did not duplicate the cultural tsunami of “Peaks,” despite some pretty good marketing.

There are distinct similarities between the two shows. Both were inspired by and are, to an extent, parodies of the prime-time soap opera format. “Palms” embraces melodrama more in performances and in Wagner’s florid writing. The dialogue is packed with literary and cultural references and wordplay. Both shows exhibit elements of surrealism  and perversity: in the latter case, “Palms” tiptoes the line of prime time acceptability with less subtlety than “Peaks,” especially with the demise of a particular character.

“Palms” distinguishes itself from “Peaks” by being more overtly political and straightforwardly science fictional. It’s sci-fi in the vein of , involving virtual reality (VR) and a drug used to enhance the experience (Dick’s “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” is very much a touchstone). It’s also very “L.A.,” with many, if not most, of the characters having direct ties to the Industry and to the religion “Synthiotics” (this depiction surprisingly not raising the ire of a certain other L.A.-based religion notorious for being extremely litigious).

Some 25 years later, it’s clear “Palms” is not as timeless as “Peaks.” Some choices (the fashion and phone technology) now look quaint, anchoring it firmly in the early 90’s. Other aspects feel prescient, like a direct commentary on our current landscape: especially the political war between the “Fathers” (right wing) and the “Friends” (left wing).  Looking past its contemporary setting and lack of dragons, the way the conflict plays out between two families intertwined by circumstances, with side characters becoming disposable pawns, has a quasi-medieval tone that “Game of Thrones” fans might appreciate. Although the acting all around is good—Delany, Cattral, Loggia and Dickinson are notable, and Belushi reminds you that he’s a good dramatic actor when given the opportunity—very few of the characters are likeable; they don’t captivate audiences the was Lynch’s characters did.

Kino-Lorber released the series on Blu-ray and DVD in the fall of 2020, remastered and including commentaries: Bruce Wagner with James Belushi on the pilot, Wagner paired with Dana Delany on Kathyrn Bigelow’s episode, director Keith Gordon on his two episodes, and Phil Joanou on the last episode. They’re all informative, although Joanou’s is the weakest of the bunch.

A Grantland article on the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut features an interview with creator Bruce Wagner.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another provocative exercise in television-for-people-who-don’t-like-television — a six-hour ‘event series’ that makes ‘Twin Peaks’ look like ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’… a jaw-dropping combination of disturbing imagery, dark humor and startling moments spread over a narrative that’s virtually impossible to follow.”–Brian Lowry, Variety (contemporaneous)

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)

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DEVELOPED BY: Travis Fickett, Terry Matalas

FEATURING: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, , Emily Hampshire, Todd Stashwick,

PLOT: In 2043, the world is decimated by a viral pandemic that occurred in the late 2010’s. Scavenger James Cole (Stanford) is recruited by Katarina Jones (Sukowa), a scientist heading Project Splinter, which can send a person back in time. Cole is sent back to 2015 in the hope that he can prevent the outbreak. He encounters virologist Cassandra “Cassie” Railly (Schull) and enlists her help. They discover that things are not easy, as their attempts to prevent the outbreak are repeatedly foiled by the “Army of The 12 Monkeys” and their leader, “The Witness,” who has a grander plan in mind.

COMMENTS: “The best adaptations of IP aren’t in slavish service to their source material but are inspired by that material to say something new — something personal, something genuine. I’ve come to learn that adapting doesn’t have to be an act of re-creation. Just gratitude. We wanted to take our love of Gilliam’s film and with the advantage of a longer form narrative, more deeply explore what it made us hope and believe about the nature of time.”–series co-creator Terry Matalas.

The “12 Monkeys” series was inspired by the feature film Twelve Monkeys (1995). Generally, no one looks forward to television series based on popular films, although it’s a long established TV subgenre. It’s hard enough making a GOOD film that can hold an audience’s interest; with a television series, one has to repeat that success on a weekly basis, AND maintain quality for several years—if things go well for everyone. Some get lucky & hit gold (“M*A*S*H,” “Friday Night Lights”) while most others crash and burn and end up in the cultural dustbin.

So when it was announced that there would be a series based on Twelve Monkeys on SyFy, the initial reaction wasn’t favorable. After all, the movie was directed by , who puts his distinctive visual style even on what would be considered “work for hire” projects—which Twelve Monkeys technically was (David and Janet Peoples’ based their script on ‘s 1932 short La Jetee). With Gilliam having no involvement whatsoever in the new show, it makes perfect sense that most fans would consider it a dubious enterprise.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to watch the first episode in January 2015 and not find it inept and horrible; in fact, it was interesting enough to wonder how long it could sustain itself before collapsing into The Suck. Fortunately, it never did. Over four seasons, “12 Monkeys” kept its promise to its audience to provide quality storytelling. They knew to leave at the top of their game, as opposed to Continue reading CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)