Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: THE FINAL SLICE OF STRANGE

Au Revoir

The Festival’s second half proved to be quite worthwhile, with a few gems tucked away in the final days. It was good, but my eyes started to hurt.

7/29: One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead Poster (2018)This should have appeared in the previous week’s “slice”, but for a couple of days I toyed with doing a fuller write-up of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s “found footage” horror exercise. I’m going to ask that you trust me on this, because I cannot say any more without compromising your viewing experience. But you Really, Really Should see this if you can. For those like me who regard the zombie genre as effectively run into the ground, this movie—despite what it seems the premise is—breathes so much life into the tired, tired tropes of zombie-this, -that, and -the-other. Top-notch cast, top-notch direction, top-notch notch. (Highly recommended.)

7/30: The Scythian

Still from The Scythian (2018)I had unfortunately missed seeing this on the big screen as both screenings conflicted with other films. However, even on a modest 41″ television in a darkened cubicle, Rustam Mosafir’s proto-Russian adventure fantasy proved itself to be one heckuva ride. Filled with sword fights, betrayals, mysterious pagans, and some crazy berserker-juice, The Scythian was everything one could want in a medieval adventure yarn. In particular, the score (which is something I’ve noticed I’ve been noticing a lot more) heightened the historical and mystical tones. Both the diegetic music from traveling performers and the ambient tribal chanting grounded the old world feeling; things cut loose a bit more during a fine bit of fighting when the chants were paired with some sick heavy metal guitar. While criticized in its homeland for a lack of historicity, I was more than happy to overlook incongruities from a millennium ago.

Cinderella the Cat

Still from Cinderella the Cat (2018)With four directors covering 86 minutes, you get about twenty-one minutes per director. I’m not sure how the assignment was divvied up (though conceivably they could had one for the animation, one for the voice acting, one Continue reading 2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: THE FINAL SLICE OF STRANGE

2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: A SECOND SLICE OF STRANGE

Ambiance

Demolition is going on not too far from my window. Apologies in advance for any typos or misinformation; I’ll blame the occasional ground shudderings and Carbon Monoxide I’ve been reading warnings about.

7/17: The Nightshifter [Morto Não Fala]

Poster from NightshifterNightshifter‘s director, Dennison Ramalho, has been hovering around the periphery of the Fantasia Festival with shorts for over a decade now. During that time has met José Mojica Marins (of “Coffin Joe” fame), looking for that filmmaker’s ring (a gift from ‘s wife) on the dark floor of the cinema, as well as Ken Russell (of Ken Russell fame) at the Fantasia screening of A Serbian Film.

What Ramalho brings to the table in this outing is a refreshing bit of horror (!) revolving around a morgue attendant, Stênio, who can speak with the dead. When he makes the mistake of misusing their information he is doomed to be haunted by an incredibly angry and bitter (and dead) wife. While it is marred by a too-obvious score (we’re already dealing with corpses, murders, morgue prat falls, and haunting) that focused too much on the jump-string section instead of maintaining a quiet unease, the Nightshifter still manages to pack a bit of a punch. Its necessarily troubling finale is gratifying in its way, too, as Stênio rises to the challenge of accepting his fate. More from Ramalho will likely be a good thing for horror fans.

7/18: Boiled Angels: the Trial of Mike Diana

Trusting the voices inside my head, I took in a screening of Frank Henenlotter‘s latest film early this afternoon. This the Henenlotter of Basket Case fame: what would attract the interest of this genre filmmaker? Nothing less than the once obscure, now infamous trial of Mike Diana: the only artist in American history to have been found guilty of obscenity. Though it’s a talking-heads documentary, Boiled Angels naturally enough skirts along its periphery, using narrated illustration segments and gee-whiz-colorful meets Dear-God!-extreme examples of comics both from Mike Diana and much of American comics’ underground history. Various luminaries provide remarks, from Jay Lynch and Stephen Bissette (who testified for the defense) to George Romero and . What makes this documentary stand out in particular is that the filmmakers reached out to Mike’s adversaries and gives those players not just screen time, but also a fair shake. Must see for afficionados of underground comics: Mike Diana took Continue reading 2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: A SECOND SLICE OF STRANGE

CAPSULE: CHAINED FOR LIFE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Stephen Plunkett,  Charlie Korsmo

PLOT: While starring in a low budget period horror film, Mabel makes the acquaintance of some affable “freaks” brought on set for authenticity; while the main cast and crew’s away, the freaks pass the time making their own movie vignettes.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made as a rejoinder to the infamous Freaks (1932), Aaron Schimberg’s movie is non-exploitative, clever, funny, and professional. While the meta-narrative gets a little odd at one point, Chained to Life really boils down to being a feel-good comedy in the very best possible way.

COMMENTS: I found something very odd about my viewing experience of Chained for Life, and it wasn’t the subject matter. After the brief introduction by the soft-spoken director, I was feeling nervous, for some reason. Admittedly, I’ve had difficulty coping with the sight of deformity (in person and otherwise), but having thought about it—and having now seen the movie—it was the wider critical interpretation that I’d read beforehand that made me apprehensive, and afterwards made me confused. I’ll talk about what other critics saw later; me, I saw a charming, character-driven comedy.

When a busload of disabled people show up at the shoot for a period horror film, there is a hiccup of apprehension on the part of the “normals” already present. The leading lady, Mabel (Jess Weixler), plays the movie’s movie’s leading lady, a woman blinded by some unexplained accident who is promised to be cured through radical surgery. However, Chained for Life focuses primarily on the actors and crew involved, in particular on the blossoming friendship between the physically self-conscious Mabel and the physically self-accepting Rosenthal (Adam Pearson). While primary filming progresses by day, the “freaks” lodge in the hospital by night, eventually deciding to play around with filmmaking themselves. One twist leads to a cute reveal after a ways, but the story is pretty simple.

That’s not to say it isn’t well done. By using the pretentious “art-house” nonsense being filmed by a hyper- stand-in (billed only as “Herr Director”) as a counterpoint to the day-to-day scenes of people interacting with people, Aaron Schimberg crumples up any fear of “the Other” by focusing on the lighter side of the banality everyone faces. There are also moments of considerable hilarity scattered throughout. At one point, Herr Director demands Rosenthal “emerge from the shadows”. When asked the simple question, “What am I doing in the shadows?,” Herr Director goes off on a lengthy, increasingly impassioned tangent concerning The Muppet Movie, the Muppets’ epic quest, and the big reveal of . This handily reveals the director’s obsessions without providing Rosenthal with any good reason why his character would just be kicking around in the dark, while also nicely linking the two phenomena together: as Schimberg remarked in an interview, whenever there’s a big reveal (chair swivel, shadow emergence), it’s either a celebrity or a “freak”.

But what of those other critics? One used the term “black comedy” , and the only interpretation I can make of that being any comedy involving these kinds of people must be subversive somehow. Another’s mind was blown by a modest twist found in the final act; it was as if he watched a far more complicated movie than I had. But despite the unsettling undercurrents discovered by other reviews, I found Chained for Life to be as pleasing as it is witty. As the credits appear, they spool over one long take on the bus of the variously disabled actors after the in-movie movie shoot. After so deftly undermining preconceptions about disfigured people, this stunt pays off handsomely. What do we see when we watch them on the bus? Totally normal people being totally, normal, bored. It was an excellent flourish and a perfect way to underline the film’s thesis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all culminates in an odd, almost surreal sequence in the back of a hired car, shot in a single long take. This deeply weird finale, both humorous and moving, strikes an uncanny note I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before — something mesmerizingly close to the sensation of a waking dream.”–Callum Marsh, The Village Voice (festival screening)

2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: A SLICE OF STRANGE

Arrival

Anyone traveling internationally should heed this advice: nothing hurries customs agents along faster than the phrase, “I’ll be covering a film festival.” Two years in a row now I’ve seen the Dear God, All Right, Moving on… expression at the border when explaining the reason for my trip.

So without further ado, the reason for my trip: Fantasia Festival movies!

7/12: Nightmare Cinema (Anthology)

Still from Nightmare Cinema (2018)“Horror” isn’t really my preferred genre—I either find it too pointless, or too scary (!).  “Anthology” also isn’t my preferred film format — I typically want one movie to carry itself. Combining the two, however, works out well: it allows for a taste of a director’s work without committing the viewer to overkill. Mick Garris, supervising a clutch of Horror luminaries, has put together a string of varyingly good vignettes. “The Thing in the Woods” (dir. by Alejandro Brugues) tells the tale of a handful of  twenty-somethings  making incredibly bad, incrediblier rapid-fire decisions as if they can’t get to their gruesome fates fast enough. “Mirari” (dir. by [the Legendary] Joe Dante!) deftly taps into the fears of plastic surgery gone awry. “Mashit” (dir. by Ryuhei Kitamura) is pretty ho-hum, until the very Catholic (that is to say, “Unorthodox”) slaughterhouse finale. And “Dead”(?) concerns a boy who, having been … dead … for seventeen minutes can now see the … dead.

What stood out with its bleak tone, creepy understatement, and grisly ambiance, however, was “This Way to Egress” directed by David Slade of Thirty Days of Night fame. A mother of two boys is growing increasingly unhinged after her husband leaves her, resulting in her seeing her surroundings and people she meets looking ghastlier and uglier as the hours go on. Her psychologist  just about recommends suicide before heading off to a meeting. This short stood out even moreso because, unlike Thirty Days of Night, it is well-written, very unnerving, and left me creeped the Hell out. (Somewhat appropriately.)

7/13: La Nuit a dévoré le monde (The Night Eats the World)

Still fromThe Night Eats the World (2018)If any of our readers are fans of the zombie/undead/shuffling corpse-people genre, they should check out Dominique Rocher’s directorial debut. Our hero, Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), passes out in the back room of his ex-girlfriend’s apartment after an awkward encounter at a party. Upon Continue reading 2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: A SLICE OF STRANGE

CAPSULE: DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (1973)

La morte ha sorriso all’assassino

DIRECTED BY: Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D’Amato)

FEATURING: Ewa Aulin, Sergio Doria, Angela Bo, Klaus Kinski

PLOT: Greta is dead. Greta is not dead. Greta is dead. Eva is jealous. It’s the early 20th-Century. H̶e̶r̶b̶e̶r̶t̶ ̶W̶e̶s̶t̶, I mean K̶l̶a̶u̶s̶ ̶K̶i̶n̶s̶k̶i̶, I mean Doctor Sturges tries some re-animating. Walter’s father returns. A cat appears. They’re brother and sister.

Still from Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTDeath Smiles on a Murderer plays out like a $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s a musical score that constantly suggests the movie will collapse into soft-core pornography, plenty of sudden and inexplicably violent murders, a cluttered timeline, and Klaus Kinski once more seeming as if he’s acting in an entirely different movie. Plenty of choice, yes, but the overall crumminess makes you question the six-dollar outlay.

COMMENTS: Swanning in just to grab his paycheck, Klaus Kinski adds a bit of his own supernatural allure to an otherwise pointless giallo outing.

Composer Berto Pisano keeps the audience on its toes as he veers between grunge eldritch Western guitar riffs and pornographic melodies, adding, at least in his own unique way, to the muddled horror experience.

Not one to be restrained by coherency, Aristide Massaccesi uses every camera trick he learned as a cinematographer to keep the image moving even while the story goes nowhere.

Falling into the realm of “so-bad-it’s-crummy”, Death Smiles on a Murderer ends up in that unfortunate “Fulci-Valley”: never good enough to merit much respect, never bad enough to inspire wonderment.

As you may have been able to tell from the above grab-bag of opening lines, there are about as many (dismissive) ways to approach this movie as there are reasons to wonder why the director couldn’t either get his act together or abandon it entirely. I’ve been sitting on this review for some weeks now, having let the experience of watching Death Smiles on a Murderer sit awkwardly in the back corner of my brain, and am only now taking up the challenge of completing it after some direct prompting from the authorities. Despite this very loaded start, I’ll do what I can to give this thing a fair shake.

Aristide Massaccesi (better known as “Joe D’Amato”) directed not quite two hundred movies over the course of his career, and unfortunately it shows. Even more telling is that this is the only movie of his that he was proud of enough to attach his actual name to. This twisted tale of Italian-looking, German-named aristocrats collapses shortly after the formulation of the premise: a young woman (Ewa Aulin) arrives at a villa (or perhaps more appropriately, a “Schloss”) after a carriage crash that kills the crazy coachman, having no memory of her preceding life. The nobles (Angela Bo and Sergio Doria) on whose property she crashes immediately take her in and, after having her looked over by the local creepy doctor (Klaus Kinski), both fall in love with her. As my opening sentence suggested, things almost veered into Eurotrash art-porn. Alas, they did not. I’m not saying I demand art-porn from all my ’60s and ’70s low budget Italian movies, but when the score demands it and nothing else is on offer, it’s a letdown when it doesn’t show up.

But what goes on? Everything that does, goes wrong. There are pointless fish-eye lens shots of a menacing hunch-backed psycho intercut with shots of a fleeing maid; endless corridors and staircases abound, advertising just how abandoned the castle site is; Kinski’s doctor character gets killed well after he’s gone off into his own sub-movie that involves both Incan black magic and Day-Glo re-animation fluid; and if I could talk about the insane cat-attack scene without breaking into a smirk, I might give it a go.

It’s a pity, too, because Massaccesi/D’Amato very obviously loved this film (expressing his pride in no uncertain terms in an interview included on the disc), but it’s more of a camera-man’s résumé (and a pretty weak one, at that) than a movie. Not even two additional screen-writers could save this incoherent and very occasionally ambient mess of giallo, genre, and Kinski tropes. But, I suppose I can’t say I’m unhappy I saw it. That’s about as fair a shake as I think I can muster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Narratively speaking, it doesn’t make for the most graceful of mash-ups: there are times when the asides feel so extraneous that you find yourself wondering just what they have to do with, well, anything. D’Amato doesn’t exactly provide the most compelling answers for some of them, especially the weird, wild digression involving Kinski’s doctor.”–Brett Gallman, Oh, the Horror! (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: LORD LOVE A DUCK (1966)

DIRECTED BY: George Axelrod

FEATURING: Roddy McDowall, Tuesday Weld, , Lola Albright

PLOT: From his prison cell, preternaturally wise high schooler Alan Musgrave recounts his efforts to transform bubbly teenager Barbara Ann Greene into a star, as well as the insanity and destruction that trailed his efforts along the way.

Still from Lord Love a Duck (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lord Love a Duck is an angry satire, casting aspersions on the modern obsessions of society alternately with a raised eyebrow and a hoarse scream. This can manifest in odd ways, from sarcastic jabs at timely fads to a blatant disregard for internal logic. It’s plenty strange, but at this point in our listmaking, the end product is ultimately too disjointed to work well, even on its own terms.

COMMENTS: Lord Love a Duck is the kind of movie that makes you pity marketing executives. Faced with a story that calls out America as a place of grotesque ambition and blithe idiocy, particularly in the form of its teenagers, the promoters clearly decided to lean into the thing that the movie purports to loathe, namely a wacky teen sex comedy. Which, to be clear, Lord Love a Duck is decidedly not.

How else to explain hiring George Axelrod, the screenwriter behind the acidic thriller The Manchurian Candidate, to transplant Al Hine’s novel about witless Iowans to that famed black hole of self-obsession, Hollywood? Axelrod wastes no time in savaging the misguided priorities of this society, starting with a high school that resembles a bank office tower and taking aim at every entity it can find. Basic school subjects are renamed to sound easy-going. The police are whiny and needy. The only movies this movie-drenched culture makes have the word “bikini” in the title. The local house of worship joyfully proclaims itself “The First Drive-In Church of Southern California” (a thinly-veiled swipe at the real-life progenitor of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral). Our world is morally bankrupt, this movie says. Look upon thy works and despair.

If this sounds more like a dark tragedy than a goofy farce, Lord Love a Duck‘s response is, “Why can’t it be both?” The film’s tone swings between extremes: the same motion picture that puts Barbara Ann and her estranged father in a taboo-teasing, orgasmic fantasy of fruit-themed cashmere sweaters has no problem turning around and watching the girl’s mother spiral downward into drinking and suicidal depression. This cinematic whiplash applies to characters, too: Martin West’s Bob, whom Barbara Ann will marry in a misguided burst of sexual desire, declines from sly allure to misplaced uprightness to outright blissful incompetence. (“He’s a total idiot,” says his own mother.) Lord Love a Duck is whatever movie it needs to be in the moment, logic or continuity be damned.

By all rights, this should be Barbara Ann’s movie, especially given Tuesday Weld’s powerhouse performance. We are given an early clue to her character when she tells Alan that she fears switching to a new high school will destroy her hard-won popularity and status: “Everybody has got to love me,” she pleads, both fierce and desperate, and without the obviousness that could easily accompany the line. But her character shows very little agency in feeding her insatiable lust. No, that all falls to Alan, who promises to fulfill her every desire, and schemes to deliver.

Which leads to the strange hole in the center of the movie: Alan, or as he alone calls himself, Mollymauk. What does it mean to cast 36-year old Roddy McDowall, with his lilting English accent and prissy demeanor, as the smartest kid in high school, conqueror of muscle-bound quarterbacks, outwitter of adults, and ostensible sole voice of reason in a vulgar world? (And why always white pants?) The cognitive dissonance of his casting is magnified by the utter vacancy of his character. Alan is impossible: plotting blackmail against the principal, installing himself as a resident in Ruth Gordon’s house, establishing “inadvertent” connections with Hollywood producers. He’s a walking deus ex machina, able to supply whatever is needed to advance Barabra Ann (and the plot) forward. And for what? He seeks no personal gain, gainsays his own confession, and even manages to go back and graduate high school after years’ worth of action has transpired. If we hadn’t seen him interact with others (and possibly murder four people), he might easily be mistaken for her Tyler Durden. As it stands, Alan is a cipher, the supporting character somehow sitting at the film’s center.

Some satires are missiles, homing in their targets with precision and righteous anger. Lord Love a Duck is a grenade, spraying shrapnel anywhere and everywhere it can reach. The rage is real, but impotent. The filmmakers want you to be as angry as they are at the state of this pop culture-obsessed world. And like Barbara Ann, who ends the movie with a fame of dubious quality and longevity, they have no idea what to do once they’ve gotten what they wanted.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Axelrod described it as a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove, and while that’s apt, no soundbite can do justice to the scope and breadth of its warped vision…the film’s all-encompassing satire and comic density suggests he might have used up all of his ideas in one place. If so, he went out in a blaze of glory, with one of the weirdest, most brilliant teen movies ever made.” – Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club

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

CAPSULE: CAFE FLESH (1982)

“Go play in the fallout.”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian (as Rinse Dream)

FEATURING: Michelle Bauer (as Pia Snow), Andy Nichols, Paul McGibboney, Marie Sharp, Tantala Ray, Dennis Edwards, Kevin Jay

PLOT: “Able to exist, to sense… to feel everything, but pleasure. In a world destroyed, a mutant universe, survivors break down to those who can and those who can’t. 99% are Sex Negatives. Call them erotic casualties. They want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill. The rest, the lucky one percent, are Sex Positives, those whose libidos escaped unscathed. After the Nuclear Kiss, the Positives remain to love, to perform… and the others, well, we Negatives can only watch… can only come…to … Cafe Flesh…”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Cafe Flesh is a post-apocalyptic adult film about people who become violently ill from human touch. Generally speaking, adult films are pro-sex, so it is definitely a unique entry in the world of adult cinema. Cafe Flesh was not the only post apocalyptic adult film—it was a popular sub-genre in the 1980s—but I do think it might have been the first. The copious cutaways to the gawking, impotent patrons during sex shows were peculiar, but completely relevant to the plot. As odd as they were they fit in the context of the film. The first couple of performance-art sex scenes were definitely wacky. A lonely housewife is seduced by a milkman in a rat mask while three grown men dressed like babies look on from their high chairs. A guy in a huge pencil headpiece bangs one of the broads in the office while the naked receptionist looks on typing and repeatedly asking “Do you want me to type a memo?” Cafe Flesh definitely teeters on the edge of weirdness, but forced at gunpoint to answer “weird or not weird,” I would have to go with “not weird.”

COMMENTS: I was a huge fan of Stephen Sayadian’s Dr. Caligari and couldn’t wait to check out some of his other work. Turned out, his other features were all adult films. My exposure to hardcore films at that time was pretty slim. After checking out Night Dreams and Cafe Flesh, however, I was inspired to check out several other adult titles from the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, very few were as entertaining or as unusual as Stephen Sayadian’s.

The plot verbiage above is taken directly from the film’s introduction. The primary focus is on two of the club’s regulars, Nicky and Lana, “The Dagwood and Blondie of Cafe Flesh,” so dubbed by the club’s delightfully sarcastic emcee Max Melodramatic. I gathered from the film’s opening statement that the 99% of the population do not only become physically sick by human touch, but are also impotent and couldn’t get the job done anyway— although it really doesn’t go into much detail on the subject. The post-apocalyptic victims gather together at Cafe Flesh to gawk at art noveau hardcore sex shows. The performers are not volunteers, by any means. Enforcers are out there to flush out sex-positives who are not performing. Angel, a doe-eyed virginal lass from Wyoming, is taken away to do her part in entertaining the 99%.

If you were impotent and human touch made you vomit, would you really want to go to a sex club? They mock the torture of the audience numerous times, the majority of the abuse coming from the aforementioned emcee. Andrew Nichols gives a genuinely standout performance. He delivers his wordy dialog with complete ease; I did not question for a second that he was the emcee of a seedy post-apocalyptic sex club. Also stepping up to the plate and knocking it out of the park is beautiful Michelle Bauer (billed here as Pia Snow, the name under which she made a few adult films at the start of her career). Bauer should be a familiar face to those of us who enjoy 1980s horror cinema. She appeared in a ton of horror flicks: The Tomb, Terror Night, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Nightmare Sisters, and Deathrow Diner, to name a few. I found her character here to be so very likable, I really wanted her to have a happy ending, and indeed she does.

Obviously, considering the plot, the sex is limited strictly to the shows the sex negatives watch. Dripping with 1980s flare and fashion, these stage shows are creative and well-costumed. Stephen Sayadian’s films embrace everything that was fabulous and flattering from that decade: sharp angular silhouettes, bold solids, wide black and white stripes. It was all about geometry then—at least, the cool stuff was. I have been suitably impressed with the sets and costumes for all three of the Sayadian films I have seen. The superb synth soundtrack from Mitchell Froom hits every right note; absolutely perfect musical accompaniment. I love this soundtrack so much that I own it. Black and white striped teddies, angular phone booths, sunglass-bespectacled studs, naked ladies in cases—there is just so much to say about the aesthetics here.

Cafe Flesh is a visual treat that oozes the 1980s with good performances and a badass soundtrack. A highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, apocalyptic adult adventure.

Fun fact; if you do a Google search for an adult film title, its IMDB listing is usually the first or second hit that will come up. If, however, you are on the IMDB website and search that title, it will not come up at all, unless you use the advanced search feature and toggle the button to “include” adult titles every time.

GoreGirls’ Dr. Caligari review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Night Dreams review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Cafe Flesh photo gallery (NSFW)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in terms of sci-fi pornography set in a post-apocalyptic netherworld, you can’t anymore cerebral than this… Sex Negatives force the Sex Positives (the 1% left unaffected by the fallout) to perform bizarre, surrealistic sex acts for their amusement.”–Yum Yum, House of Self-Indulgence (DVD)

CAPSULE: KALEIDOSCOPE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Jones

FEATURING: , Sinead Matthews, Anne Reid

PLOT: A lonely ex-con tries to muddle through life and find romance, but it seems his mother is determined to reassert her domination over him.

Still from Kaleidoscope (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTKaleidoscope toys around with perception and time in a… kaleidoscopic kind of way, but everything gets wrapped up pretty nicely (a little too nicely for the likes of us). It must be said, though, that the protagonist’s mother cranks up the creepy factor to within throwing distance of serious consideration.

COMMENTS: Maintaining a constant sense of unease while being both sweet and unsettling is a tough balancing act for a movie, and such films often pass by unnoticed. And as there are just so many movies to watch, even if your job is to watch them, it can be hard both to find the time to watch the right movies and to find the right movies to fill your time. Kaleidoscope is as understated as its melancholy protagonist, and it’s easy to miss: it’s foreign, low budget, and its biggest star is a niche (albeit incredibly talented) character actor. I would never have watched this if I weren’t a “366” reviewer; having done so, I suspect it will be right up the alley of many “366” followers.

Carl (Toby Jones) is a lonely fellow living quietly in a clapped-out council estate. Tonight, though, is special, as he’s arranged a date with an outgoing young woman named Abby (Sinead Matthews), making the rendezvous at the appropriately named bar “Lust.” Returning to his flat afterwards, they chat, share drinks (he’s a teetotaler, though), and even dance together (that’s right: you get to see Toby Jones dancing to Dubstep in a shirt as loud as the music). Then things start to go badly: Carl gets an unwanted phone message from his mother, his drink gets spiked, and Abby may only have gone on the date in order to case the joint. The next morning, Carl awakens to find himself on his couch not remembering much. Details slowly coalesce, suggesting he may have murdered—again. Panicking, the last thing he needs is a surprise visit from his hated mother (Anne Reid). Of course, she arrives.

The ickiness of Carl’s mother is hard to overstate. Anne Reid’s performance is about as knockout as a low-key psychodrama will allow. She’s excessively sweet (she cooks for her son, cleans his apartment, and even offers him a £90,000 check by way of apology… for something) while being surreptitiously domineering (Carl is obliged at one point to bandage her injured leg after cleaning it up). And she has a history of—probably—taking advantage of him sexually. This leaves the viewer finding her by turns unpleasant and staggeringly creepy. There was one scene in particular that started out merely as uncomfortable before going so far as to force me to shout at the television, “Oh God, No!” (That, dear reader, is quite an achievement considering the dozens of disturbing movies I’ve watched over the years.)

While other reviewers have had the recent misfortune of reviewing forgotten movies that deserve that fate, I’ve typically lucked out with watching ones that merely fell below the radar and stuck there. Kaleidoscope is nothing earth shattering, but it doesn’t need to be. In the same “Mother-as-Monster” genre as ‘s Psycho, it tells the tale of a child being broken by the very person who should have been his protector. As his hallucinated dead father assures him (“I don’t blame you. She filled your mind with poison”), Carl is hardly responsible for the collapse of his life. Kaleidoscope, with its subdued shatter-view, nicely toys with the audience in a far more congenial way than Carl’s mother toyed with him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The eponymous optical instrument gets a full symbolic workout in ‘Kaleidoscope,’ an intricately crafted, infinitely wrongfooting psychological thriller in which conflicting realities coalesce, diverge and regroup like so many shifting formations of jewel-colored glass.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on casette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, it’s enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)