Category Archives: List Candidates

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PLAYDURIZM (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Gem Deger

FEATURING: Austin Chunn, Gem Deger, Issy Stewart

PLOT: Demir lusts after handsome auctioneer Andrew, Andrew lusts after blonde druggie Drew, and Drew has an intermittent death wish for Demir.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Taking his visual cues from Liquid Sky and his narrative cues from Videodrome, first-time filmmaker Gem Deger presents a hazy narrative teeming with homoeroticism, designer drugs, unnerving violence, tragic escapism, and the reliably cutesy presence of a house pig.

COMMENTS: With well over a century of cinema having come and gone, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss a film for being “derivative.” Variations on themes is the only way to tell a story these days, and it is with that in mind that I judge Playdurizm, the directorial, screenwriting, and acting debut of Gem Deger. Deger puts forward his manifesto in the opening sequence, narrating that “[Francis] Bacon said there’s nothing apart from the moment… I believe in nothing,” over a pink-lit sex scene. Whatever pretentiousness may come across in his art-housey introduction is, against the odds, grounded by the surreal tragedy that ensues.

Demir (Gem Deger) wakes up to the sounds of a pig rooting around what may be his bedroom. It is unclear, as it is quickly established that Demir has lost his memory—suffered a “complete reboot”, according to his house mate, Andrew (Austin Chunn)—and sees little option but to follow the pet pig as it scampers across the purple- balloon-covered floor. Demir is awkward, soft-spoken, and ostensibly allergic to peanut butter, making Drew’s suggestion he try some on his breakfast bagel a bit too cutesy-sinister. But the “Drew problem” Demir faces (he lusts fiercely after Andrew) is solved quickly enough with a drug overdose. However, an improbable man with a genuine Malevich soon appears, and his ambitions aren’t entirely to do with selling a “Black Square” painting to Andrew.

Ambition and amateurism collide throughout, making for a twitchy viewing experience. Austin Chunn looks the role—presuming, of course, one is envisioning an impressively sexy auctioneer—but at times seems more like he’s playing the part instead of inhabiting it. On the other hand, Chunn’s dialogue delivery when suturing a nasty wound is spot-on; contemplating his sewing hook and floss, I believed it when he advised, “this is going to… be a little minty.” Gem Deger’s performance simultaneously benefits and suffers from his awkward, heavily accented delivery. Ultimately, though, the chemistry between Deger and Chunn is undeniable.

The sound design, set design, and prop choices (Goebbels’ belt-buckle gun, anyone?) carry much of the weight, weird-wise. If someone told me that Deger had never seen Liquid Sky, I’d say they were lying. Any excuse for neon tones and lighting is good enough; the Day-Glo vomit, wondrous in its luminescence, is an obvious nod to Margaret’s makeup. Beyond the direct Videodrome name-drop (Demir and Andrew get high watching it together while Drew is lying dead in a cupboard space beneath the sofa), there is a slow tilt toward body horror and twin-dom that is what the cumbersome term “ian” was devised for.

Those fine lines between amateurism and ambition, pretentious and tragic, and derivative and original all weave together by the finale, as the story’s actual events come to light.  Deger admits his plagiarism in the title. This cinematic exploration of the adversities that so often befall the queer community is melodramatic, vibrant, frightened, and determined—not unlike that wondrous community itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…any film festival looking for a film that shirks conventional story telling with surrealism and puts danger and violence into romance and sex should consider it…”–Andre Mack, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY ( and )

FEATURING: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong

PLOT: Evelyn Wang is barely keeping it together, running a business and raising a family while the threat of an IRS audit hangs over her head; as if that wasn’t enough stress, just before a last-chance appointment with her stern auditor, a visitor from a parallel universe tells her the fate of the multiverse lies in her hands.

Still from Everything Everywhere all at Once (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Based on the trailer, I had originally assumed this was going to be Daniels’ mainstream popcorn movie: a sci-fi/action/comedy not likely to be significantly weirder than The Matrix or the latest Marvel Phase 4 offering. And while there were plenty of wisecracks, kung fu free -for-alls, sentimentality, and CGI frippery, the makers of Swiss Army Man  snuck enough genuine weirdness and unpredictability into the formula that, as the credits rolled, a young theater patron was moved to loudly announce “bizarre is the only word that describes that.”

COMMENTS: Evelyn is a hot mess: a hot mess in a quiet, middle-aged matron kind of way, but a hot mess nevertheless. Harried and constantly distracted, she vainly tries to balance running her laundry business with an overextended social life. She also has to deal with the family members constantly vying for her attention: neglected husband Waymond, lesbian daughter Joy and her new girlfriend, and disapproving, ailing father Gong Gong. It’s no wonder that Evelyn’s 1040 was selected for audit, and that she’s having enough trouble filling out the forms correctly and collecting the proper receipts and documentation that the business is in danger. And so it’s also little surprise that, when told by an interdimensional emissary that the fate of the entire multiverse depends on her, her response is an exasperated “Very busy today, no time to help you.”

But of course, help she reluctantly does. After the setup, the movie reveals its relatively complicated mechanics about infinite universes that branch off at individual’s decision points (i.e., marry Waymond or don’t marry Waymond creates a new universe, as does eating eggs for breakfast instead of noodles), all leading to a network of bubble universes that are visualized as nodes on a smartphone app. A helpful avatar of her husband from the “Alpha” universe explains the evil force threatening all existence (which involves a “bagel of everything”) and how Evelyn can access the skills and knowledge of versions of herself from parallel universes to counter it. So she does, with both badass successes and wacky failures along the way.

With its focus on branching realities, the Canonically Weird movie Everything Everywhere all at Once most resembles is Mr. Nobody (2009) rather than Swiss Army Man. In fact, it’s Nobody to the nth degree: where ‘s cult classic confined itself to three main alternate histories (with notable detours like the argyle universe), Everything attempts to live up to its title with dozens upon dozens of alternate realities, from simple ones where Evelyn is a martial arts expert or a movie star to bizarre worlds where she’s a piñata, a sentient rock, or (the audience’s favorite) a lesbian in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers. Adding to the eccentricity, the Daniels posit that it’s necessary to seed a jump to a new universe by performing an unpredictable action like eating an entire tube of ChapStick or—in another audience favorite scene—finding an unconventional use for a suggestively shaped IRS auditor’s award.

The script requires almost every actor to play multiple roles, and the ensemble acting is about as good as it gets. Everyone shines, although naturally it’s Yeoh who holds it all together with a performance that recalls (and references) her Hong Kong roots in wuxia films, as well as her recent turn to comedy with Crazy Rich Asians. And a special kudos have to be given to 93-year-old James Hong, for whom this would be an excellent cherry on the top of an incredible 450-role career (except that he still has more films coming out, and may be trying to hit 500 credits before he passes the century mark).

Ultimately, all the apocalyptic furor relates to events in Evelyn’s real universe—uh, the universe we started in, that is. My only slight reservation is with the ending, which gets a bit sappy in delivering its honorably intended “love yourself, faults and all” message. On the other hand, not everyone is a black-hearted cynic like me, and most audience members seemed as moved by the film’s pathos as they were invigorated by its action and amused by its comedy. In the end, this impressive feature comes pretty close to delivering Everything, with bizarre and imaginative conceits delivered at a hyper pace that does make it sometimes seem like they’re happening All at Once. Everything Everywhere all at Once is recommended for everyone everywhere as soon as you can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an explosion of creative weirdness that is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming…  It’s ground-breaking because it allows a new perspective, but it’s also just blatantly weird. It’s not glossy or careful; the film is an onslaught of visual and thematic ideas… In an era of sequels and remakes, something this outside the box is a welcome alternate reality.”–Emily Zemler, Observer (contemporaneous)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: RIKI-OH: THE STORY OF RICKY (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Ngai Choi Lam

FEATURING: Siu-Wong Fan, Mei Sheng Fan, Ka-Kui Ho, Yukari Ôshima

PLOT: While in prison for murdering a gang of drug peddlers, Ricky defies the tyrannical authorities as he pursues his freedom.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: I’ll get to that; let me gather my severed thoughts first.

COMMENTS: For those hand-wringing types out there, the future will always be filled with violence, drug use, and bizarre minor-coding. Everyone else, take some comfort: this future is already past. Among the details I only gleaned after the fact, Riki-Oh takes place in 2001, in a world where prisons are privatized, and the preponderance of superhuman resilience leaves contemporary (whether now or at the film’s release) witnesses agog. The enthusiasm behind its narrative ambiguity is the very same which renders what could have been a joyless scrap of torture porn into an eminently silly (and occasionally giddy) ride through a dozen-odd stations of the cross, with Ricky as the unflappable messiah preaching justice, hope, and ultra-violence.

Wrongful imprisonment is a well-worn trope, but Riki-Oh demonstrates individuality the moment its hero is processed for triple murder. After some bureaucrats read his sentence, he passes through a metal detector, immediately setting it off. Manhandling Ricky to a nearby x-ray machine, guards discover the alarm was triggered not by weapons, but by five bullets lodged in the murderer’s chest. When asked why they remain, Ricky answers, in his petulantly bad-ass tone, “I wanted a souvenir.”

Riki-Oh has all the finely chopped ingredients for a z-grade gore-house martial arts revengeance nonsense: an evil warden and his flunky, abusive guards, shower fights, yard fights, crack-thwack sound effects, and gallons of blood. But three factors prevent this film from being tossed aside as derivative. First: the tiny oddities that gather to the point of toppling into fully fledged weird. The assistant warden is missing a hand—a cutesy touch, in its way. But in the next shot, what’s this? Why, he’s missing an eye, too. And he drinks from the cup where he stores the glass prosthetic. And, since it’s hollow, this is where he keeps his mints. Not to mention his flanking lapel scorpion cameos, or the tall shelf of pornography behind his work desk that is never mentioned. The second touch brings Riki-Oh more assuredly onto weirder ground: a twist in the final fifteen minutes reveals the evil warden’s backstory, without any hint of reason. I won’t give it away, but it does explain why the bastard is so nonchalant when staring down the prisoner who has dispatched countless prisoners and other goons.

And the third thing. Brief research clarified that Riki-Oh is closely adapted from a manga (no surprises here), and it may be simply mirroring themes from that source. However, the ardor of its twin social justice philosophies manages to outdo its over-the-top violence. Oddly for a martial arts blood piece, it has something to say about the societal evil of drug dealers (with sympathy for users), and has a whole lot to say about treating prisoners humanely. In its way, Riki-Oh advocates for penal rights as fervently as Nagisa Ôshima‘s Death By Hanging did—but instead of ratcheting up sociopolitical surreality into an absurdist climax, Riki-Oh climaxes with the warden ground up into a couple hundred pounds of hamburger. That said, perhaps they’re more alike than I had thought.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…be warned: if blood and guts are not your thing, then avoid this film like ebola – for they do not come thicker, weirder or funnier than here… While not for the squeamish, this film is a cult classic – fast, silly, jaw-droppingly outrageous, and a true original, unlike anything else you will ever have seen.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Horst,” who called it “An absolute must-see, really weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE NINE LIVES OF TOMAS KATZ (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ben Hopkins

FEATURING: Tom Fisher, Ian McNiece, Will Keen, Tony Maudsley

PLOT: On the day of a rare solar eclipse, a stranger with the ability to switch places with others arrives in London. His identity-swapping and subsequent trouble-making have an immediate impact on the natural order of things. A police inspector suspects that the disappearance of the Astral Child That Represents Existence may be responsible for the strange happenings and interrogates the spirits in an attempt to stave off disaster.

Still from The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz (2001)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Combining stark surrealism, a heightened and aching sense of dread, and a heaping dollop of British absurdism, The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz has a profoundly distinctive point of view—there’s a perverse thrill in the way the film not only accepts its incongruities but relies upon a relentless commitment to them.

COMMENTS: Tomas Katz – whose name might in fact be “No” – has a ready answer to a casual question about what he does for a living: “I cut people open to find out where their dreams lurk.” What he doesn’t say is that he knows the ugly truth about most of those dreams: they are fractured or forever out of reach or consigned to the dustbin of memory. And this is the day when Tomas Katz will resolve all of those dreams by ending the world.

If The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz could be said to have a theme, it is that the world is simultaneously ridiculous and tragic. For a movie ostensibly about the end of everything, there’s not much concern about the actual end. It all seems pretty messed up, and usually in a pretty amusing way. We’ve got war, but it’s declared by the Minister for Fisheries against a country with a silly name. We’ve got financial calamity, but it’s brought about by an angelic choir. We even have the mass of humanity marching to Gehenna, but that just turns out to be the last stop on the London Underground. It’s nihilism with a smile, a sweet-smelling hangover.

The world into which No enters, which is primarily London as encompassed by the M25 motorway, is one where Britain’s famous stiff upper lip has metastasized into a blend of habit and ennui. Londoners are trained to silently endure the wait for their train, so when an announcement informs them that their trip will be delayed to accommodate the souls of the dead, there’s barely a perceptible change in tone. Similarly, the deployment of a tuning fork that kills all children on national television might seem destined to arouse anger and protest, but broadcasters know just how to smooth over the ruffled feathers: “The BBC would like to apologize for the widespread destruction and loss of infant life.” It’s not that the world will end with a whimper, but just that nobody wants to make a fuss.

There may be no better synthesis of the mood of Tomas Katz than a sequence where No encounters a boy bemoaning his fate: he has no friends, and his Tamagotchi died just that morning. The scene turns into a silent film, complete with wailing strings and ornate title cards. “The tamagotchis will be freed from their cages,” No assures the boy, “and all will be released.” Then he swaps places with the boy and experiences all the highs and lows of childhood, the joy and the cruelty, the pleasure and pain. It’s not too hard to understand why No feels tremendous pity for the doomed human race, and why he’s simultaneously content to burn it all down.

Tomas Katz is a genuinely funny movie, but it’s an especially English kind of funny, Britbox with bite. Consider the rabbi whom the BBC has called in to offer his wisdom to the nation despite the inconvenience of having been dead for two years. Or perhaps the police report of a window conspiracy, which is an amusing combination until we actually get to see it play out. In fact, the tone shifts so widely that the film could easily be called The Nine Films of Tomas Katz, yet it never loses its focus or its bleak humor.

For a small-scale, microbudget endeavor, Tomas Katz plays big. Huge credit goes to lead Tom Fisher, who embraces the chance to play multiple characters with a unique blend of sympathy and savagery. Kudos also to Ian McNiece, whose fearful police inspector manages to find drama and pathos in connections that make no logical sense. And a special shout-out to Dominik Scherrer’s diverse and adaptable score, which encompasses opera, techno, klezmer, Klaus Nomi, patriotic marches, and more.

Fittingly, it isn’t No who brings about the end of the world. He hands that honor to a security guard named Dave, whom he identifies as “the most vacuous being in the universe.” (Dave doesn’t seem too put out by this.) We will ultimately be the agent of our own demise, it turns out. The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz shows what that grand finale will look like if we all just keep calm and carry on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This has to be one of the strangest films of the year, a weird apocalyptic vision shot in the most mundane of London surroundings, with all too obvious budgetary constraints pushed asunder by the sheer energy of the director’s imagination.” – George Perry, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Phantar.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GLAMOROUS LIFE OF SACHIKO HANAI (2003)

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Hatsujô kateikyôshi: Sensei no aijiru

DIRECTED BY: Mitsuru Meike

FEATURING: Emi Kuroda

PLOT: A call girl survives a shot in the head and acquires the cloned finger of George Bush.

Still from the glamorous life of sachiko hanai (2003)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Add George W. Bush saying “G-spot” in a Japanese accent to the list of things you never expected to see (or hear) in a movie. The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai might not be the most polished or profound flick out there, but left-field surprises like that are the reason we watch weird movies.

COMMENTS: Sex films sometimes give low budget directors the chance to innovate and experiment. So long as you deliver the anticipated dose of T&A every ten minutes, the thinking goes, you can fill up the interstices with whatever nonsense or profundity you like. Some frustrated auteurs have taken this opportunity to mix ambitious absurdism with sex: started in hardcore, decided to make an entire oddball career in , and mixed pornography with honest-to-God surrealism. The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai stands firmly in this tradition, but with a typically Japanese panache.

The opening scene is a 6-minute soft sex scene with call girl Sachiko seducing a client while posing as his tutor. The clip is made for straight wanking, betraying no hint of the avant-garde pretensions to come. Afterwards, during a confrontation at a cafe between two secret agents, Sachiko is shot but inexplicably survives a bullet to the head, while her lipstick is accidentally switched with a container holding the finger of a clone of President George W. Bush. The accident leaves her with super-intelligence and psychic powers, and she soon seduces a famous professor who like to discuss Noam Chomsky while boning. He hires her as a tutor to his underachieving adult son who’s only interested in military history. Meanwhile, a North Korean spy is searching for Sakicho. Eventually, in the film’s strangest scene, the finger reveals its true nature, as a man in a paper George Bush mask delivers a deranged villain speech from a TV monitor (occasionally interrupted by footage of Iraqis pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue) while Sachiko, penetrated by the detached digit, writhes on the ground in involuntary ecstasy. That plot is bizarre enough, but there are plenty of surreal embellishments along the way: a crude cartoon, psychedelic green screen compositions, peeks into the activity inside the hole in Sakicho’s head, and one brief scene acted out by G.I. Joe action figures.

Unfortunately, even if you’re up for the softcore interlude every ten minutes, all of this intriguing absurdity comes with a big downside: rape. Most reviews imply that there is one rape scene—and the one they are focusing on is icky and especially gratuitous—but there are technically more that that. There’s one where Sachicko is nearly comatose and unable to give consent, one that begins as an assault when a girl tries to break up with her paramour (but appears consensual thereafter), and of course the infamous “finger” scene (which, to be fair, is so absurdly conceived that it’s hardly disturbing). Even if you don’t find these bits nauseating, they’re completely at odds with the lighthearted, comic tone of the rest of the film. Lead Emi Kuroda is so and bodacious and spunky that, properly directed, Sachiko could have been a sex-positive goddess. The movie misses a great opportunity to be a vehicle promoting positive erotic energy as an antidote to the militaristic Thanatos drive, which would have been an absolutely winning formula. As it is, no one is going to fault you if you can’t get over the movie’s implicit and explicit misogyny; it’s a glaring flaw, and quite possibly a fatal one. On the other hand, even though the attempted political satire isn’t particularly trenchant, consisting as it does of a not-so-bold anti-nuclear annihilation stance, there’s something wholesome about plopping a prominent world leader into the middle of a smutty picture.

As a pink film, Sakicho Hanai originally ran just over an hour and was titled Horny Home Tutor: Teacher’s Love Juice (!) Director Mitsuru Meike expanded it by about 25 minutes and sold it to film festivals as a cult movie. The Japanese trailer shows Meike pitching the film to a politician, hoping to get a quote for the poster. He tells the functionary who answers the phone that he’s only been able to make soft porn movies so far and that Sachiko Hanai “may be the last chance for me.” The DVD includes that trailer, the US release trailer, the Horny Home Teacher cut of the film, and a short film sequel (“The Adventure of Sakicho Hanai”) that is, if anything, more offensive than the feature, with no nudity but featuring puppet rape and Sakicho wrestling a woman in blackface.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…seems to exist in an uneasy limbo between avant-garde brilliance and completely inane abrasiveness… at times suggests Eraserhead reborn as a softcore Japanese porno flick…”–Rob Humanik, Slant

(This movie was nominated for review by “Frank.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PENDA’S FEN (1974)

AKA “Play for Today: Penda’s Fen”

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson, Ian Hogg

PLOT: Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Stephen Franklin must come to terms with his emergent homosexuality, lineage, and theological outlook.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Strange visions and societal upheaval get the BBC treatment in Alan Clarke’s adaptation of David Rudkin’s densely packed narrative. While it is littered with theologically-leaning surrealism throughout (including a charming chat with a wry Edward Elgar), Penda’s Fen earns its recommendation from how its many layers, each differently profound, integrate, as Manichaeism, paganism, deep history, military corporatism, labor crises, and sexual awakening un-peel and reincorporate into this philosophical coming-of-age drama.

COMMENTS: Profundity comes crashing right out of the gate in Penda’s Fen, and never lets up. A young man’s voice intones a prayer, of sorts, in the opening minutes as the title card appears over various pastoral scenes: “Oh my country, I say over and over, I am one of your sons…” The protagonist is the seventeen-year-old son of a parson; the era is England at its nadir; and the classical references fly left, right, and center. Simultaneously, Penda’s Fen feels familiar: the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood, coming to terms with himself and his surroundings. The relatability of this awkward character, and the complaisant manner in which the story is told, are a testament to the talents of the leading actor, Spencer Banks, and the story crafters, Alan Clarke and David Rudkin. The gravity of the whole experience strikes deeply into our consciousness, simultaneously opening channels of fascination.

Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is the quintessential goody-two-shoes. He excels in his studies; he enthusiastically partakes in military volunteer training; and he leads debates at school while attending municipal debates after hours. He loves the works of Sir Edward Elgar, particularly “The Dream of Gerontius,” a meditation on death and salvation. Stephen also has feelings for the young milkman, though is not quite aware of their nature. His parents, however, have sussed their son’s leanings for some time, and are accepting thereof—though the father can’t hide his amusement at the well-worn typicality of the recipient of his son’s affection.

As a back-drop to the sexual awakening, there is a local labor agitator who is also a playwright (and also, probably, a homosexual); a secret military installation being built under a nearby field; and ecclesiastical visions. This endless string of semi-colons and splashes of back- and side-story doubtless convey the difficulty in attempting to dissect Penda’s Fen in any brief-but-meaningful way. Discussing the father, with perhaps half an hour of shared screen-time, could fill a slender volume. A profound thinker, his erudite remarks hover along the believable side of esoteric, and coupled with his deeply human understanding of himself and his son, along with an awareness of England’s, and the world’s, pagan antecedents, make him both an unlikely parson, and an unlikely source of love and stability in his son’s life.

And there I go again, listing elements. Let’s change tack. Penda’s Fen was made for television (I shudder to think what appeared on United States television at the time), but this is no detriment. It shows a concise craft: brisk pacing that is never hasty; perfect accompanying music from Elgar; and a sense that the limitations of the screen and budget forced the filmmakers to convey their many (and complicated) messages in as simple, and distilled, a form as possible.

Alas, more semi-colons, more parentheses, more commas. Penda’s Fen is unlike anything I’ve seen before it, and its sprightly ninety minutes deeply explore more concepts and experiences than some of the artiest art-house meditations I’ve been forced to endure for hours on end.

Penda’s Fen is available on a single Region B Blu-ray (which won’t play on most North American Blu-ray players). It is one of the keystone films in Severin’s massive “All the Haunts Be Ours” folk-horror compilation. Another option for American viewers is to sign up for a BritBox subscription (free trial available).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A highly popular play from the reliably weird David Rudkin, with a younger audience than Play for Today was used to, mainly due to its fantasy elements, it has since acquired a reputation as a cult piece of ‘telefantasy’ which, deserved though it is, belies its sophistication.”–TV Cream (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chris Reynolds, who described it as a “metaphysical journey of a young boy in rural England [wjo] encounters symbolic figures representing Britishness who begin to disrupt his notions of identity..” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EDWARD II (1991)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Steven Waddington, Tilda Swinton, Andrew Tiernan, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Upon the death of his father, Edward II lifts the banishment of his friend and lover, Piers Gaveston; in response, his royal court rebels and civil war ensues.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Unlike many period pieces, this has homoerotic dance interludes, a serenade crooned by Annie Lennox, and a chilling scene in which Tilda Swinton’s Queen Isabella lustily bites the neck of a disloyal nobleman. But beyond the obvious oddities, Edward II‘s narrative pinches more than flows, its disjointed scenes rendering the film’s array into a garment that juts out in disquieting spikes at the observer.

COMMENTS: To fully appreciate what is going on in Edward II, one must have a decent grip on England’s 14th-century history, 16th-century theatre, and 20th-century cinema. History’s pertinence pools sickly within the bumps and cracks of Derek Jarman’s austere sets, casting its gloomy but far-reaching glow under the director’s harsh lighting. The doomed players—the king and his lover; the queen, and hers—are archetypal tragic figures attired in smart modern dress. Gilded glamor and radiant red splatters the creaking, decaying artifice of the seat of English power as the flawed monarch fights vainly to secure first the safety of his lover, Gaveston, and then his own. Through Edward II, Jarman grinds his axe in the Middle Ages before taking it to the neck of contemporary England.

Three times it is read that Edward II’s father has died, and three times it is read that Piers Gaveston’s banishment has thus been rendered null and void. To the chagrin of all but the new king, Gaveston returns from France, enchanting Edward anew, and infuriating the establishment. Edward sees nothing but beauty in Gaveston, and feels nothing but his love. Edward’s queen, Isabella, feels spurned, and considers self-exile until Mortimer, the commander of England’s armed forces, convinces her that he has a plan. His plan unfolds, and Edward grudgingly banishes Gaveston once more. But the plan folds in on it itself, and the murky doings of the discontented nobles trigger a series of upsets, turn-abouts, and murders.

This is a juicy tale, to be sure, and that juiciness is reinforced by Jarman’s aesthetic. King Edward’s private haven is a square pool of murky water, tucked away in a basement chamber with rusted-steel walls; upon his second banishment, Gaveston endures a gauntlet of spitting nobles; and blood, when it appears, is ample, particularly after the queen renders harmless an erstwhile ally. The lines are delivered wetly, as well. The actors are not slurping and sputtering, but the sound design emphasizes the wetness of the lips, the throaty fullness of exhortations. The slick-slap of words is brought forward in the sound design and rendered at full volume—dialogue delivered in drenched sorrow.

Whether or not the time-jumping anachronism, accentuated performances, and installation-style shots and sets work for you will hinge on whether you are open to the full Derek Jarman experience. An avid gay rights activist, Jarman eschews any ambiguity about the actual monarch, and is willing, able, and eager to toss aside two things: any cinematic conventions that may stand between him and making beautiful, painterly images, and any staid historicism that may stand between him and his proudly gay point of view. It opens with a conversation between Gaveston and a traveler; two men unabashedly make love behind them. It closes with a lament from Edward playing over shots of assembled, real-life gay rights activists. Derek Jarman had a clear world-view, and in Marlowe’s play, he found the perfect framework to display his classically peculiar visual élan while simultaneously preaching his message.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Derek Jarman’s phantasmagoric, outrageously stylized interpretation of the Christopher Marlowe play, is more a creature of its director’s sensibility than its creator’s… In [Jarman’s] hands, Edward II has become a chic melodrama that’s part art object, part The Valley of the Dolls.” -Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)