Category Archives: List Candidates

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.1)The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

References   [ + ]

1. The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HIGH LIFE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Claire Denis

FEATURING: , , Andre Benjamin,

PLOT:  A scientist performs strange reproductive research on a crew on a mission to gather data about a black hole.

Still from High Life (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Its mixture of weird sex with celestial mystery is compelling and disturbing. High Life won’t be easily forgotten.

COMMENTS: History is colored by the struggles surrounding the expression of human horniness. Cinema is no exception. As sexuality is emotionally subverted or converted in art, whether romantic or pornographic, the message remains clear: it ultimately finds a way to express itself, regardless of individual morality. Sexuality can be thought of as a separate, living entity within us.

In High Life, the new space thriller from Claire Denis, there is a lot of sex, especially masturbation, that feels alien. The mixture of organic sexuality (represented here by a focus on bodily fluids) with classic sci-fi ponderings (i.e. black holes) provides a powerful and thought-provoking punch in the groin. Filled with bleak procreative grotesqueries, it delivers an emotionally rich cosmonautic narrative without once mentioning time travel. High Life contains enough original and confounding content to render it quite bizarre. It certainly deserves a deeper look.

It cannot be overstated how uncomfortable it can be to watch High Life. There is one scene midway through the picture that’s close to unbearable, and it certainly won’t fit to everyone’s taste. The sudden brutality of the violence is appalling, but it does serve a purpose. The discomfort that comes from viewing the unpleasantries is contrasted with central character Monte’s (Pattinson) paternal relationship with an infant, Willow, who is seen cooing and crying her way through the ship’s combination of banal décor and retro-futurist digitalism. Willow, herself a manipulated product of human fluids, is a symbol of life’s purity, inspiring monkish Monte to care for her. While his character is chaste and heroic, a sense of his moral authority is established as the choices and experiences of the other characters reflect their sexual natures. Here is where the movie gets very weird.

In High Life, sexuality is a physical and spiritual entity that signifies moral authority, which becomes a force that determines the actions of the characters. While we see all manner of bodily fluids voluntarily and involuntarily issue forth from the characters—including breast milk, urine, blood, water and (of course) semen—the events of the plot are staged as a battle of wills. As the crew approaches a black hole, things spiral out of control, and Denis links the chaos to the sexual behaviors or non-behaviors of the characters. The crew’s power dynamics, expressed through masturbation and sexual longing—along with their attempted manipulations of each other’s bodily fluids—demonstrate the range of outcomes from drives that can either push humanity forward or lead to destruction. The lingering black hole excavation subplot ties these relationships together through a powerful combination of brooding celestial images and a dark ambient score suggesting the human void of violence and manipulation is inherent in time and space. The sounds and images of High Life, while grounded in the iconography of classics like 2001 and Solaris, are breathtaking and original, reimagining a bleak universe inhabited by a moral consciousness.  A baby cries, alarms go off, dogs growl, multi-colored fluids are excreted, collected, and tampered with, as the central plot gives a shove and not a thrust.

The slowly-revealed plot concerns a group of convicts on a mission to gather data from the singularity of a black hole. As they proceed, an alpha-female scientist (a convict herself, played by Binoche) conducts experiments for the purpose of birthing the first child in space. It sounds simple, but the presentation of these events is a truly weird experience. Creepy masturbation, oozing fluids, violent outbursts, and that lingering shot of a pulsating black hole invoke a mixture of the nihilism of some unholy /David Cronenberg hybrid with the mystifying obscurity of . Anchoring the mayhem is Binoche and her sinister, witchy performance, her smirk belying pure deviltry with human frailty, while the black void of space accentuates the ensuing drama. High Life satisfies in spite of its unpleasantness, and the ending provides ambiguity for further discussion. It’s worth noting that the recent release of the first actual black hole image pairs nicely with the timing of this picture’s release. Ultimately, your ability to enjoy High Life will boil down to whether you enjoy being challenged and provoked—something a truly weird movie probably should do.  By that token, this movie deserves recognition and further discussion.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… strange and wondrous, less a traditional sci-fi film than it is a seductive journey into the long, black night of death.”–Andrew Lapin, NPR (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MFKZ (2017)

Recommended

Mutafukaz

ムタフカズ

DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard

FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)

PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because there’s no other home for a Jhonen Vasquez/Ralph Bakshi-style mash-up from the studio that brought us Tekkonkinkreet in alliance with some subversive Frenchies.

COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.

Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.

For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.

I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CLIMAX (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: About two dozen dancers, all of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A modern dance troupe goes crazy when someone spikes their rehearsal party sangria with a heavy dose of LSD.

Still from Climax (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Literal LSD trip movies don’t come along that often. Ones made with this much skill and care are even rarer. Climax is messy and flawed, but impossible (for us) to overlook. And Gaspar Noé is probably the only master of world cinema who regularly contributes trip reports to Erowid.

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Climax, we watch interviews, presumably from the audition process, playing on a TV screen. Attractive young people are asked about their philosophy of life, their drug use, their greatest fear. We get to know them a little, but what might be more important are the names of the books and VHS tape boxes flanking the TV screen: Possession, “Un Chien Andalou,” Salo, Suspiria, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, Zombie. While none of these (except perhaps Suspiria) have much real thematic relationship to Climax, Gaspar Noé’s roll call of influences at least puts the well-traveled weirdophile on notice that they’ve bought the right ticket.

The movie is not one long, unrelieved freakout; it does build to a, well, Climax. After those preliminary interviews and some preliminary structural foolishness (the end titles play first, and the opening credits are delivered in the middle of the film), we start with a long, energetic, contortionist techno dance number, a real wower for fans of intricate choreography. (It must have been quite a challenge for the casting director to find top-notch professional dancers who were also capable of overacting to Noé’s demanding specifications). After they’re done rehearsing, the troupe choose to unwind by… dancing, but now lubricated by a punchbowl of sangria. At this point several of the dancers break off into pairs and we watch a series of conversations that further introduce us to the sprawling cast of characters. While everyone is bisexual and can think of few topics of conversation besides who wants to screw whom, it’s remarkable how efficiently this dialogue establishes a recognizable look and narrative hook for each of the dancers so that we seldom accidentally confuse them when the trip proper begins. It’s character differentiation more than character development, but it works very precisely in this context. Next up is another long dance scene, this one shot from above, as the dancers form a circle and each takes his or her turn freestyling in the center of the mob. After this diversion the party breaks apart and people start to notice that they’re feeling weird, leading them to wonder just what was in the sangria. When one dazed dancer suddenly starts urinating on the floor, they realize they’ve definitely been dosed, and paranoia starts to rise as the mob throw accusations at first one suspect, then another.

After the LSD kicks in the film adopts a Slacker strategy, with the camera following a single dancer around, watching the mini-drama as he or she copes with the situation, then peeling off to follow another. Sexual jealousies and suppressed perversions are, naturally, the main demons that the tripping hoofers battle, but there are also violent beatings, suicidal impulses, and a child wandering around the premises to be dealt with. Some simply succumb to the terror of being on an unknown, but high, dose of an intense pscyhotropic drug with no preparation. Each dancer gets a chance to freak out, with some spotlight solos. At the movie’s peak—which perhaps goes on uncomfortably long—everything is light in a hellish red with upside down and spinning cameras, as the party dissolves into an indistinct orgy of sex and violence. The denouement is grim, but we do actually find out who was responsible for all the carnage.

What does it all mean? The author offers us a couple of pretentious epigrams. “Love is a collective impossibility.” “Death is an extraordinary experience.” Not really helpful. More than anything, the drug trip is a convenient excuse for Noé to indulge in melodramatics that would otherwise be implausible. His characters howl, writhe, and piss themselves in animalistic degradation. It’s equally an excuse for him to indulge his melodramatic style. Is Climax a satire? Perhaps, since everyone is ultimately so unlikable, but if so it is a very dry and unfunny one. Is it a metaphor for our chaotic, backbiting modern times? Maybe. France is described as hell (specifically by the minority members of the troupe), and yet the titles announce (ironically?) that Climax is “a French film and proud of it.” I don’t think Noé commits himself to any particular interpretation; he’s simply interested in choreographing as much misanthropic excess as possible. With Climax, I’m more convinced than ever that Gaspar Noé has no idea what he wants to say with his art—but is nevertheless supremely confident about how he wants to say it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the nuttiest, trippiest dance party you’ll ever attend.”–Brian Truitt, USA Today (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: POSSUM (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Holness

FEATURING: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong

PLOT: A lonely ex-puppeteer tries to dispose of his demonic spider puppet, but it returns to his room every morning.

Still from Possum (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Possum earns a look due to its sheer intensity and commitment to a consistent mood of lingering, suppressed evil.

COMMENTS: You’ll know whether you are into Possum or not from the pre-credits scene. Sean Harris, with a face that can only be described as carved into a permanent frown, gray shirt buttoned to his chin, looking like a guy forced to sign up for the sex-offender registry solely because he looks like a pervert, stands in a field while he reads a corrupted nursery rhyme in voiceover: “…Can you spy him deep within? Little Possum, black as sin…” He places a bag at the base of an odd tree formation with seven trunks. Shot from a dramatic low angle, he stands before it, looking down at the package, pensive, uneasy, shoulders hunched, hands pointed inward toward his crotch; two trunks flank him on either side like splayed limbs. A flute plays a nervous melody, accompanied by the deep strings of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, which explode into a cacophonic drone as the titles play. The atmosphere is already thick and dreadful, filled with a tension suggesting horrible repressed secrets.

Possum is great at suffocating you, making you feel like you’re inside the airless mind of a tormented madman. It fills you with apprehensive suspicion. But, up until the end, the story does not really develop so much as pile on. Every day, the same scenario repeats, with hallucinatory variations. Every day, Philip leaves his brown and dingy house with a large sack containing his puppet, Possum, a spider creature with a human head that looks suspiciously like its owner. He slouches about town, avoiding human contact; he throws the bag in the trash, in the river, burns it, but when he wakes up in the morning Possum is there again at the foot of his bed, or hanging on his wall. Other than a few awkward encounters with locals who shoo him away, Philip only converses with his housemate Maurice, an avuncular older man with a veneer of sarcastic friendliness, who obliquely hints that he knows things from Philip’s past—awful things, it goes without saying. Their daily conversations, though nominally about Philip’s indestructible puppet, are almost entirely subtextual. “You show that to children?,” asks a skeptical Maurice.

Although the movie initially plays as obscure, the symbolism is not difficult to tease out, and becomes fairly explicit by the end. But that hardly lessens Possum‘s effect. Although the repetitive first hour may lose impatient viewers, Possum is unforgivingly rewarding to those who stick with it. It wears away at your sanity drip by malicious drip. Armstrong, primarily known to British audiences for his portrayals of Dickens characters in stage and television plays, makes a wily and terrifying villain. Harris completely crawls inside the shell of his loner puppeteer; he generates sympathy while simultaneously remaining alien and creepy. The camera is bleak and the music oppressive. It’s a great movie for those who like their horror emotionally punishing, and no fun whatsoever.

Believe it or not, writer/director Matthew Holness was previously best known to the British public as a comic actor. I haven’t seen his comedy, but I believe he should stick with horror. Possum is an adaptation of a short story he wrote for an anthology themed on Freud’s notion of the uncanny. The movie did not play in U.S. theaters, but it was released on a DVD with extensive interviews with the director and cast. It’s also currently available free to Amazon Prime subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’ve dreamed of ‘Ken Loach’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,”‘ here is the closest such thing anyone is likely to ever commit to celluloid… Fans of conventional horror will no doubt sigh with boredom over the lack of action, but more adventurous viewers may lend this modest but distinctive enterprise its own eventual cult following.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BORDER (2018)

Gräns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ali Abbasi

FEATURING: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren

PLOT: Tina is a Swedish customs officer with a super-human ability to detect when travelers are hiding something; her monotonous existence is upended when she meets Vore, who is hiding something far stranger than mere contraband.

Still from Border (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Ali Abbasi’s film unflinchingly depicts “the other” in a low-key manner that forces the viewer to constantly question how well they can handle those who are very different from them. The mounting discomfort breaks mid-way through a reveal that is as surprising as it is relieving.

COMMENTS: Working for a site such as this, one often (and, indeed, hopefully) stumbles across strange and unsettling things that one cannot un-see. The carnage of Greenaway’s chamber drama; the nightmare of Lynch’s take on parenthood; or the sheer unpleasantness of von Trier’s rumination on couples going through a rough patch: all grab the viewer with an aural and visual assault through a strange, strange lens. With Border, director Ali Abbasi joins this crew of unrelenting visionaries. For its first half, his film defies categorization; for its second half, it pulls the viewer into a fairy-tale macabre whose supernatural elements are belied by their matter-of-fact depiction.

Tina (Eva Melander) is ugly, anti-social, awkward, but undeniably skilled at her job. With an almost feral sniff at passersby, she is able to determine if they are carrying something dangerous or illegal across the border into Sweden. Being able to sense shame, guilt, and a gamut of other emotions, she spots underage boozers, would-be traffickers, and even a well-heeled traveler with something dreadful on a hidden memory card. When a comparably ugly, antisocial, and awkward man (Eero Milonoff) passes her post, she knows something is “wrong” about him, but a thorough search of his luggage (and his person) reveals nothing. She’s never failed before, and feels compelled to learn more about this mysterious man. While aiding the authorities in breaking up a child pornography ring, she bonds with this stranger and ultimately learns two unsettling truths.

Without giving much more away, I felt a very strange sense of relief after the big reveal. The first hour of Border goes by without any explanation for the uncomfortable goings-on: uncomfortable for someone like me, at least. The continuous kind of “normalcy” on display became very trying, and my sense of comparative ease when Abbasi finally showed his hand made me wonder: would this movie have been better without that release valve? As it stands, it is a very good, and very strange, viewing experience. Had he gone completely without explanation, it would have been a much more difficult movie to watch, but perhaps a much more salient one. Having been pushed to the edge of an uncomfortable frisson, the pull-back allowed me to think of it more cinematically; and I was able to then better view it for its narrative and thematic merits. In the end, Border‘s greatest achievement is providing the viewer with a believable, optimistic finish to its strange tale of deformity, love, and human cruelty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strangeness in this film writhes like bacteria.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DARK STAR (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm, Brian Narelle

PLOT: A tiny crew of astronauts is on a maintenance mission to wipe out unstable planets, while contending with beach-ball shaped aliens, megalomaniac AI smart bombs, toilet paper shoratges, and their own petty disputes.

Still from Dark Star (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Dark Star explores just enough dark matter to make it a heavy contender for the List, given its narrow category of sci-fi-comedy. The main things holding it back are that it hasn’t aged well, it’s a shoestring budget production with a syrupy pace, and the fact that it really could have fit a few more ideas into its runtime. But some details demand its consideration, such as the theme song: still the only country-and-western quantum-physics love-ballad so far in cinematic history. And a damned catchy one!

COMMENTS: Dark Star is such an enduring and beloved cult film that nothing I could say here could dent its reputation. It marks the origin of two heavy-weight genre-film talents: director John Carpenter, of Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live fame, and Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to pen the screenplays for Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, and Total Recall. This is about the film you’d expect if you gave these two juggernaut talents a camera and turned them loose when they were students on a dormitory budget. Dark Star is a sci-fi comedy and a clever satire on the Golden Age of science fiction. It cheerfully plunders your memory if you grew up munching “Analog” and “F&SF” magazines and pulpy sci-fi paperbacks from thrift store spinner racks (that’d be me!), in the same way plunders grindhouse cinema. This is all done with a relaxed, broken-in pace, giving it a unique tone even among sci-fi comedies.

The crew of the good ship Dark Star are on a 20+ year mission in deep space to detonate unstable planets around star systems wherever they may find them, to clear space for potential future colonization. They get pep talk video transmissions from Earth mission control with a ten-year delay; the crew has tenuous support at best and their mission is not particularly urgent. They’re a crew of expendable red-shirts. Indeed, Commander Powell is dead already, but kept as a meat popsicle able to telepathically counsel the crew. Morale is in the pits: Talby (Dre Pahich) has retreated to the observation bubble where he avoids as much responsibility as he can, Doolittle (Brian Narelle) escapes with daydreams of his good old days surfing in Malibu, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) fitfully takes out his aggression with laser rifle target practice, and Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) has adopted a farting orange ball alien, whom he seems to identify with more than the rest of the team. In between, the crew’s intense boredom and frustration makes them lash out at each other with testy, passive-aggressive acts of random pettiness.

Outside of all that, there really isn’t much of a plot. We have a crew of burnouts who have allowed their beards and mustaches to grow into Freak Brothers‘ territory, surrounded by banks of computer monitors and endless colorful buttons and switches, earning this movie the well-deserved moniker of “hippies in space.” Everything electronic talks, from the ship’s guiding computer to each individual bomb (note that this movie predates “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). The hilarious alien gets loose and Pinback has to chase it down, in an extended slapstick sequence that brings him to peril in an elevator shaft. Various computer and electronics malfunctions cause the sentient bombs to go haywire, creating a crisis where the crew must talk a bomb down from exploding with the ship still attached. Funny throwaway moments are all over; the crew tokes doobies in joyless resignation, and thumbs through D.C. Comics’ romance titles. And of course, numerous sci-fi works from the classics up to that year are referenced, including, without spoiling it, a Ray Bradbury short story—you’ll know it when you see it.

Dark Star‘s cult following today is at least halfway due to the intelligence at the core of its lightweight premise. It is a grand piss-take on the science fiction epic blockbuster, a genre at that time still in its salad days. Ironically, Carpenter and O’Bannon would go on from here to make some of the most definitive movies in that very genre. Dark Star counters the unfolding corridors of wonder reflected in David Bowman’s eyes with caustic pragmatism: space travel sucks when you run out of toilet paper. There are no Captain Kirks or Mr. Spocks here to deliver ringing speeches about the nobility of mankind’s quest for discovery. When new stars or intelligent lifeforms are discovered, Lt. Doolittle sneers “Who cares?” and “Find me something I can blow up!” Have Stephen Spielberg and his imitators given you the impression that our first contact with alien life forms will be a sweeping cosmic epiphany? Naw, it’ll probably be something like the orange ball with horrid clawed feet which has to be chased and corralled like a rowdy puppy. Dark Star pops our Atomic Age balloon to remind us that no matter what amazing things humans accomplish, most of our problems will still be with us just because we’re dumb monkeys who can barely get anything done through the choking bureaucracy that is our only form of self-governance. This makes Dark Star a contender for the very first cyberpunk movie. Ain’t it groovy?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Dark Star’ is one of the damnedest science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Looking back at John Carpenter’s Dark Star – An in-depth review and tribute by Lawrence Brooks at “Den of Geek”

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