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DIRECTED BY: Kenneth Anger
PLOT: The disc includes six short, experimental, largely non-narrative films by Kenneth Anger completed between 1964 and 1972.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compilations are ineligible for inclusion on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Short films have an uphill battle to take a spot on the List that could be occupied by a feature, but either or both of Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising (each clocks in at just under 30 minutes long) are meaty and weird enough that they could hear their names called on the final roll.
COMMENTS: Kenneth Anger is one strange dude. Author of the tabloid-style scandal tome Hollywood Babylon, devotee of Aleister Crowley, pal of rock stars Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, notoriously unreliable self-mythologizer, and winner of a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, Anger spends years working on films that only play for a few minutes (his most extensive work is only 35 minutes long). He sometimes returns and reworks older movies a decade or more after they are released. Even if you’ve never seen an Anger film, you’ve seen dozens of movies that have been influenced by his work; due to his innovation of scoring parades of surrealistic images to pop music, he’s sometimes considered the father of the music video (though he hates the form and has turned down offers to make videos). The refracted images of films like Invocation of My Demon Brother also helped define the film style we now think of as “psychedelic.” This collection contains Anger’s most important and influential works, from the 1960s and early 1970s—the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, when the formerly struggling underground academic filmmaker found himself embraced by the upcoming generation of hipsters. In order of presentation, the films covered in this collection are:
Scorpio Rising (1964): A young motorcyclist named Scorpio polishes his bike, gets dressed in leather, goes to a wild biker Halloween party, then participates in a race. Scenes of James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and a “life of Jesus” movie are intercut into the documentary-like footage, along with images of swastikas, comic books, and altered pop art canvases (the image of a death’s head smoking a cigarette labeled “youth” with Christ now appearing in its mirrored shades). Motown music hits of 1963 play on the soundtrack, often with clever ironic juxtapositions (when “He’s a Rebel” begins, we are shown a quick shot of both Scorpio and Christ). It includes scenes of a bikers holding down one of their own (an initiate?) and rubbing mustard on his crotch, the apparent desecration of a church as Scorpio urinates on an altar, and skulls popping up everywhere the eye can see. It’s a eroticized, mythologized vision of the biker lifestyle, with astrological suggestion that Scorpio and his kind are fated to replace the old Christian guard. Scorpio Rising is frequently cited as one of the most influential avant-garde films ever made, particularly for its innovative use of contemporary pop music and for its taboo-breaking homoeroticism. Seen through today’s jaded eyes, it’s as much a curious relic of its time as anything; in many ways, it’s actually tamer and duller than Anger’s more abstract movies.
Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965): A fragment of an uncompleted project that looks like a retread of Scorpio Rising. Shot in a pink color scheme to a girl group rendition of Bobby Darrin’s “Dream Lover,” it features a young man in tight jeans polishing his custom-built, gleaming-chrome vehicle with a giant powder puff.
Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969): Anger has claimed that his films are actually “magickal spells” that are capable of raising demons. The ratio of literalism to metaphor in this belief is uncertain, but the trancelike, ritualistic Invocation could make you sense that there is a demon standing over your shoulder. More likely, it will make you think someone secretly slipped magic mushroom elixir into your gin and tonic. It’s a series of rapid fire psychedelic/occult images, often superimposed one on top of the other, set to an abrasive, repetitive Moog synthesizer figure (“composed” by Mick Jagger) that sounds like a malfunctioning paper shredder. This is what most people imagine when they think of the term “avant-garde film”; it’s the archetypal hippie drug movie. Among the jumbled flood of images are an albino blinking in the glare of kleig lights, male full frontal nudity, sped-up clips of Anger performing a magick ritual in Haight Ashbury, kaleidoscopic mirrored shots of a male torso sprouting multiple limbs like a faceless Hindu god, occult and Tarot images imprinted over the film, glimpses of the Rolling Stones, and Anton LaVey in front of a skull altar dressed as a silly-looking cartoon devil (horns and all). There is, reportedly, a continuous loop of subliminal Vietnam war footage that plays throughout the film but doesn’t register to the naked eye. Weird fans who can tolerate the soundtrack (there is an option to play a more melodic alternate score by Bobby Beausoleil) will find this short trip on a ten-minute mind-melting machine worth taking.
Rabbit’s Moon (filmed 1950/completed 1972. The version shown here is the seven-minute, re-cut 1979 edition): Rabbit’s Moon, a re-working of an older film, is a refreshing change of pace showcasing a different, radically calmer Anger, and rates as one of the most interesting pieces in this collection. Shot in glowing, moonlight-tinted black and white, it’s a commedia dell’arte pantomime wherein the clown Pierrot longs for the moon (where, unaccountably, a rabbit lives). He is tormented by the sudden appearance of the bushy-eyebrowed Harlequin, who uses a magic lantern to conjures up the female Columbina to entrance him, then steals her for himself. The classical, poetical influence of Jean Cocteau (an early Anger fan who invited the filmmaker to visit France in the late 1940s) is overwhelmingly evident here, and the movie proves that Anger’s depth of mythological reference goes much deeper than just Aleister Crowley. The moonlit forest glade set is beautifully artificial, littered with silvery leaves. The musical accompaniment is a catchy British Invasion styled piece called “It Came in the Night” by the otherwise unknown band A Raincoat.
Lucifer Rising (begun 1970/completed 1980): Mixing the astrological/mythological resonances of Scorpio Rising with the restless psychedelia of Demon Brother, Anger’s last major film is a synthesis of much of his previous work and a fitting cap to his career (he stopped making films for 20 years after Lucifer). Molded this time around Egyptian mythology and Crowley’s notion of an approaching “Aeon of Horus,” it features appearances by Isis, Osiris (played by Donald Cammell), Lillith (heroin-addicted singer Marianne Faithfull) and the titular Lucifer (a “light-bringing” figure who bears little relationship to the Christian devil in Anger’s personal theology). The ancient Egyptian gods summon the other deities amidst images of erupting volcanoes and magickal rituals. A glowing orange flying saucer appears in Luxor over Ramses II’s shoulder. The growling, apocalyptic rock guitar score was composed by Charles Manson associate and convicted murderer Bobby Beausoleil from prison!
The Man We Want to Hang (2002): Virtually a throwaway piece included as a DVD bonus, this 13-minute short is nothing but a series of shots of canvases painted by Aleister Crowley, scored to classical music. The paintings themselves are competent, but only mildly interesting to those of us not in the cult.
Played end-to-end, the films occupy about 90 minutes of running time. Fantoma’s DVD presentation of these pieces is exceptional. Each entry contains a separate demonstration of each film’s restoration alongside commentary by Anger. Anger’s discussions are curious, because the notoriously temperamental auteur—known for burning his own films in public, snapping at interviewers, and threatening to put a curse on Jimmy Page after a private spat—comes across as a mellow, erudite, retired professor type when discussing his movies. Some of his commentary may be unreliable; for example, I found it difficult to swallow his insistence that all of the leather-bound motorcyclists in Scorpio Rising—the guys who dressed in drag, bared their buttocks, and rubbed condiments on each others’ crotches—were straight men who insisted their ever-present girlfriends not appear on camera.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: