WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 11/1/2019

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Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Cubby: A misfit adult babysitter dreams up the gay superhero “Leather Man” after eating a psychedelic cupcake. One reviewer called it “endearingly weird.” Cubby official site.

NEW ON HOME VIDEO:

Bloody New Year (1987): Five English teenagers stumble onto an abandoned hotel that’s decorated for New Year’s Eve in the middle of summer; weird happenings follow. Vinegar Syndrome’s ad copy describes it as “a distinctly original hybrid of slasher, supernatural horror, and near surrealism…” The restored Blu-ray/DVD combo comes with a commentary track from director Norman J. Warren. Buy Bloody New Year.

“Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975”:  The Criterion Collection celebrates their 1000th spine number in an unexpected way: it’s a 15-film “Godzilla” box set. These are not all that weird, with the possible exception of Godzilla vs. Hedorah [AKA Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster], but lots of fans will be keenly interested. Buy “Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975”.

Lust in the Dust (1985): Read our review. The campy Western spoof from the ever-offbeat gets a Vinegar Syndrome restoration. A DVD/Blu-ray combo release. Buy Lust in the Dust.

Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime (2019): A stoner-dude physics genius and a hot chick in a Catholic schoolgirl getup are the only survivors of the apocalypse.  It describes itself as an “absurdist satire” and comes on DVD, Blu-ray or VOD. Buy Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime.

“Scorpio Films: The Dutch Sex Wave Collection”: We’ve reviewed three of the four films included in this set separately: Blue Movie, Obsessions, and My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie. It also comes with Frank & Eva. These films are only slightly weird, at best, but this entire 70s Eurosex genre is quaint and nostalgic for many. On Blu-ray, or save money with a DVD set. Buy “Scorpio Films: The Dutch Sex Wave Collection”.

Two Evil Eyes (1990): and each take on a short adaptation of an story. Argento’s take on “The Black Cat” is reportedly the weirder of the two, although opinions diverge on which is the better overall. Blue Underground releases a Blu-ray with an extra bonus disc of features, and throws in the soundtrack CD by Pino Donaggio to boot. Buy Two Evil Eyes.

The Wizard of Oz (1939): Read our review. Warner Brothers is constantly revisiting Oz, but this is the first release in 4K (as far as we know). This edition is a 4K ultra disc plus a Blu-ray plus a digital copy; no word on extra features but Warners has loads of ’em in its vaults. Buy The Wizard of Oz.

CERTIFIED WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). We’ll only list irregularly scheduled one-time screenings of this audience-participation classic below. You can use this page to find a regular weekly screening near you.

FREE (LEGITIMATE RELEASE) MOVIES ON TUBI.TV:

Blue Velvet (1986): Read the Canonically Weird entry! Celebrate ‘s honorary Oscar with a free screening of the dark suburban thriller the Academy snubbed in 1986. Watch Blue Velvet free on Tubi.tv.

YOU LINK US! YOU REALLY LINK US!:

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston considers us an authority on Hausu. They know fine art, we know weird.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE: Next week, look for reviews of the Spanish pseudo-giallo The Killer of Dolls and the Italian magical realist drama A Sicilian Ghost Story. We’ll try to get something else out there—but if we slack off this week, it could be because we’re working hard behind the scenes on the 2019 print version of the Yearbook, which we plan to get out this year in December (rather than our usual schedule of sometime in May in the following year). So wish us luck, and onward and weirdward!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

A GIALLO HALLOWEEN DOUBLE FEATURE

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Here in the States, we associate Halloween with the colors orange and black. Naturally, in the haunted house biz, we tend to ramp up the horror quota by adding  several gallons of splattered red. But since many of the holiday’s customs spring from Italy, let’s head there and focus on the color yellow—“giallo,” in the native tongue—for this 366 Halloween. It’s more apt than one might suspect. While both van Gogh and Gauguin utilized yellow to convey a pacifistic warmth, they also used it to convey sheer horror. Leave it to the Romans to stylishly hone in on the visceral symbology of the pigment and craft an entire genre around it.

I’ll start our giallo Halloween with Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971, directed by Paolo Cavara), which features three Bond girls:  Claudine Auger (Thunderball), (Casino Royale), and Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me). The plot is about a serial killer who dips his weapon of choice in tarantula venom and pursues the ladies, all of whom can be seen in various stages of undress. Despite it’s paper-thin misogyny, Cavara composes with stylish precision. It is paced well and a grisly enough affair to satisfy genre geeks (let’s just say that the antagonist mimics the black wasp). Composer Ennio Morricone lends a helping hand, as he always does. It’s one his wackiest scores, which is saying a lot.

Still from Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)Tarantula is a virtual smorgasbord of giallo clichés: primary colors, rubber gloved killers, knife-wielding POV, subtle-as-a-pair-of-brass-knuckles eroticism, animal motifs a la Bird with the Crystal Plumage, intense chase scenes, razor sharp cinematography, big windows, modish apartments and spas. This makes it something of a starter kit for newcomers, although it is hardly the best giallo. In fact, it’s kind of like the Airport or Towering Inferno of giallo (we’re in for the treat of seeing celebs get whacked… in this case, the celebs being Bond girls).

I have never subscribed to the cult of . He is grossly overrated by his fanatical following, but still he has a few bright spots in his oeuvre. We have already covered A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, so let’s go with Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) instead. Together, they are probably his two strongest early films. 

Duckling is only marginally giallo, although Fulci’s worshipers swear it is one, so we’ll go with that. Fulci’s trademark misogyny is on hand here, and while there’s no denying its repugnance, there’s also no denying he was aesthetically skilled in displaying it—as he was in mocking the pedestaled traditions within Catholicism and expressing his loathing for its perversions and hypocrisies. These themes are full-blown in this murder mystery that begins with a series of brutal child murders. The bourgeoisie Catholic locals blame the societal misfits, including town whore Barbara Bouchet and voodoo priestess Florinda Bolkan—who is erroneously blamed, tortured, and savagely butchered by the ignorant male vigilante swine. But lo and behold, when there’s pedophilia and murder involved, it leads right back to the patriarchy. 

Still from Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)Don’t Torture a Duckling was a box office and critical success, but it cost Fulci much, and he was more or less blacklisted for years for criticizing the Church. This is a film that could not be made today, and although it is not as well-known as the director’s later, more surreal efforts, it’s beautifully horrific and has something to say.  Fulci says his piece with a level of subtlety that would be appropriate for .

CAPSULE: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, , Christopher Walken

PLOT: Constable Ichabod Crane is sent from New York City to investigate a string of murders in Sleepy Hollow only to find that there are grisly supernatural machinations afoot.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If Tim Burton maintained the off-kilter, whimsical bloodiness of the film’s first half throughout, it might have stood a chance. Unfortunately, the tone and narrative collapse together as the movie progresses.

COMMENTS: We’ve spilled a fair amount of ink writing about our mounting disappointment in Tim Burton—a director who had such promise starting out, with a string of odd-to-weird hits including Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Apocrypha Candidate Beetlejuice. The end of the last millennium also heralded the end of Burton’s dalliance with weirdness, and Sleepy Hollow acts, appropriately, as the gravestone to his career in weird cinema.

After its haunting introduction, the story proper begins down by the docks, in a young New York City, as Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp, in perhaps his last role before the living ghost of took full possession of him) pulls a bloated corpse from the waters. Irked by his cleverness, but bowing to his investigative acumen, the authorities send him packing to the gloomy town of Sleepy Hollow, as a string of murders there has left a terrified populace along with a growing stack of headless victims. He immediately is smitten by the fey Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town’s chief farmer, magistrate, and all around patriarch Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Crane soon begins his twitchy investigation, uncovering a conspiracy involving some very dark arts.

With Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton reaches the peak of his storybook, Expressionistic powers. Smoke and clouds are used to the most sinister of effects. Dark dreams filled with white magic and black torture batter the hero’s consciousness. The movie’s wicked ambience—gloomy landscapes, stunted buildings, and colorful townsfolk—seems impossible to maintain. And so it turns out to be. The strangeness of seeing Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, and Michael Gough as the gaggle of terrified and powerful officials is undercut, unfortunately, by two serious casting errors. I am a big fan both of Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson, but in Sleepy Hollow the former is too childlike, and the latter too modern.

Obviously, Christopher Walken helps—he always does. His dialogue-free performance as “the Hessian” would have been a major selling point had the marketers not (commendably) opted to keep his presence hush-hush. But as I said, the whole venture starts crumbling as we learn more about the conspiracy (all these machinations for what is, effectively, a mere cash grab) and as Ichabod Crane develops his increasing fancy for Katrina (who is simultaneously fascinating and charmless). While it’s not a high water mark for Burton, Sleepy Hollow is his last good movie. (This position is perhaps affected by my own nostalgia, having seen it in theaters in my younger days.) Had he gone full tilt, it could have been a great movie.

Speaking of tilting, there is that fiery showdown at a windmill, an apt metaphor for the film. Tim loses his nerve, and crashes and burns.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Heads roll, bodies pile up, and the horseman — played in flashback by a mega-weird Christopher Walken — rises from the dead. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, turns Irving’s Sleepy Hollow into one fucked-up farm town, filled with adultery, theft, murder and witchcraft. It’s a Burton kind of place.” -Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JACOB’S LADDER (2019)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: David M. Rosenthal

STARRING: Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nicole Beharie

PLOT: Returning home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, army surgeon Jacob Singer begins to suspect that his brother Isaac, whom he saw die in the line of duty, may in fact still be alive.

Still from Jacob's Ladder (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jacob’s Ladder rarely ventures beyond the borders of a psychological thriller that occasionally dips its toe in horror-ish imagery. As a remake, there is, unsurprisingly, nothing about its occasional dabbles in weirdness that the original didn’t do better (and weirder).

COMMENTS: In an era where unneeded remakes are more common than ever, it’s easy to forget that films like ’s The Thing, ’s The Fly, and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers have proven that celebrated stories, redone right, can become classics all over again. Of course, this is dependent upon the remake taking some creative new approach to old material, ironing out the flaws of the original, or, at the very least, retelling the tale in a fresh and intriguing manner. Sadly, none of these things are to be found in 2019’s iteration of Jacob’s Ladder.

Well, perhaps that’s a little unfair. It’s hardly as if this new version is a stale shot-for-shot reiteration of ’s original. Indeed, the film makes efforts to take a new approach to the original premise—rather than centering on the title character’s PTSD, for instance, it’s Jacob’s brother Isaac who takes on the role of the damaged and paranoid military veteran (at least at first). It could be an appealing angle—an opportunity to take the original’s central theme of accepting the finality of death, and approach it from the perspective of a grieving family member rather than the dying individual.

Unfortunately, while this remake takes the time to work in a few basic plot elements (and some recreated shots) from the original, it’s uninterested in engaging with the source film’s spirit. As a result, where the 1990 film was about the necessity of letting go and accepting death when the time comes—using chilling imagery and a thriller plot to communicate this point—the remake instead chooses to treat the surface-level plot as the film’s be-all and end-all. It expands upon—and, in many ways, builds itself on—the “conspiracy thriller/experimental drug” subplot, despite that being anything but the central point of the story (and arguably the script’s weakest element). Likewise, the cinematography and backdrops have a bland, Lifetime-movie feel to them, none evoking the original’s bleak and claustrophobic decay. And while grotesque imagery may not be inherently necessary to make an effective psychological horror, the fact that this film’s only attempt to evoke the sensation of fear and paranoia amidst a hellish urban landscape is to smear a little acne-like makeup on the occasional extra is very noticeable.

Like so many remakes before (and no doubt after) it, the main problem plaguing 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder is that it simply never convinces us that it needs to exist. Everything that made the first so intriguing—the mystery, the surreal horror, the underlying theme of accepting death—is dumbed down, for little discernible reason. Instead, we’re treated to a standard-issue TV movie that would have been just as unremarkable under a different name.

As its own stand-alone film, Jacob’s Ladder could have made for a decent, if ultimately forgettable, psychological thriller that included some cursory examinations of the effects of PTSD. As it is, however, by usurping the name of Lyne’s classic, 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder comes off as thinking far too highly of itself, riding the coattails of a far superior psychological drama despite sharing nothing but the most basic, shallowest elements with it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The new ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is less strange and scary, and more mindlessly action-packed. It doesn’t feel like a dream. It’s more like hearing a stranger describe a dream.”–Noel Murray, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Winslow attempts to escape his past and earn good money tending a remote lighthouse for a month under ex-sea captain Thomas Wake; things get desperate when they are not relieved on schedule.

Srill from The Lighthouse (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What begins as “standard” art-horror keeps shoveling on the madness until you can’t think it can go any farther. It does, and ends on a Promethean note that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a sharper-imaged Begotten.

COMMENTS: I sat too far to the front to be able to tell you if anyone walked out of the movie (often a good sign for us), but I can tell you that it passed the next best test: right after it ended, a viewer queried loudly, “What the fuck was that?” I have to admit that that is a fair question. I kept alternating my “Candidate/Capsule” toggle throughout the movie, right up until the soggy, sickly, climax when two compelling things occurred. The first thing: watching Robert Pattinson burn away any mainstream reputation he might have had from his Twilight movies. The second thing: I could not have hoped for a better, more mind-popping final shot.

The first word of dialogue isn’t one, really. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), recently arrived to as remote an island as possible, makes a muffled grunt when entering his quarters. At the far end of the room, his boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), finishes urinating into a chamber pot and pointedly passes gas before beginning to hum. Ephraim, his environment established and his company defined, does his lowly duties, forever pining to tend the beacon that Thomas jealously guards. A one-eyed seagull torments the young man, until one day he responds to its attack by smashing it thoroughly to death against a cistern. This forgivable outburst is the catalyst for a storm that smashes against the island, changing Ephraim’s circumstances from mundane and miserable to forlorn and febrile.

Its frame ratio, as far as I was able to observe, is one-to-one1, a presentation typically found only in very old movies. The motion of characters from one corner to the opposite diagonal of the screen just doesn’t have the same “punch” when there’s a standard panorama to cross, and the screen’s confines heighten the cramped nature of the setting. The lighting, too, hearkens back to cinema’s early days. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century on the edge of a watery nowhere, and the light comes only from occasional, well-diffused sunlight and dim candles. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, illuminated by a flickering light against the black room, was the stuff of comic nightmares. (His dialogue, the credits admit, is largely taken from Herman Melville, and every soliloquy is both bombastic and believable.)

Eggers drives the narrative in the one direction it can go—but while so doing brings in every horrible bit of natural humanity (Aleksey German crossed my mind on many occasions), grappling his characters to the edge before giving them a final shove into the roiling abyss. Knowing Dafoe’s filmography, I knew he had the chops; Pattinson, I have now seen, can match him. Dafoe is credited first, but this is Pattinson’s breakout-crazy performance (so here’s hoping he wanted one). Ephraim explodes in his final rant, its power almost a palpable force in the cinema, silencing the small crowd of hipsters. When the young man posed the question mentioned in the first paragraph, he was speaking for every viewer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stark, moody, surreal and prolonged descent into seaside madness that will surely not be for everyone.”–Lindsey Barr, Associated Press (contemporaneous)

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