FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek
PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.
Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a Georges Melies short in 1911.
Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.
Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
Koiya koi nasuna koi; AKA Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow
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DIRECTED BY: Tomu Uchida
FEATURING: Michiko Saga, Hashizô Ôkawa
PLOT: An apprentice astrologer, betrayed and driven mad, flees to the countryside where he meets both the twin sister of his lost beloved and fox spirits.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Mad Fox opens as a medieval Japanese epic with a folkloric spin and then suddenly goes mad, turning into kabuki theater and ending on a flying flame.
COMMENTS: The Mad Fox begins on a grandiose note when a “white rainbow” portentously appears in the sky. The Emperor summons the court astrologer, who predicts doom for the kingdom. Before the sage can divulge a remedy suggested by the astrological scroll that holds the answers to the future, he is slain by bandits. Only his chosen successor can read the scroll, but the astrologer died without officially choosing between his two disciples. Much scheming and intrigue follows, and the first act ends with Yasuna, the good and faithful disciple, fleeing to the countryside after the death of Sakaki, his beloved and the astrologer’s adopted daughter.
This first section of the film is a sumptuous Technicolor spectacle that plays out on lavish courtyard sets with characters kneeling about in embroidered silk robes, a mise-en-scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an Akira Kurosawa period piece. Things shift precipitously towards the abstract once Yasuna’s insanity hits, however. The exiled apprentice finds himself in a sea of glowing sunflowers while butterflies on visible strings flit by and a traditional Japanese singer warbles a warning to “never fall in love.” After this Expressionist interlude, act two begins when he stumbles upon Sakaki’s twin sister and, in his madness, believes her to be his lost love. Things get further complicated when the noble Yasuna rescues a wounded fox, transformed into human shape. The fox spirit’s granddaughter falls in love with him and when Yasuna is later wounded, she assumes the likeness of Sakaki and appears to him and licks his wounds clean. It’s a shade of Vertigo, but with the madman desperately falling for two separate specters of his lost love. As Yasuna and the fox build an illusory family, the final act leaves realism even farther behind, turning into a kabuki performance played out on an obvious stage set.
For some reason, synopses and reviews often stress that the movie is “hard to follow.” Although a few details of Tokugawa era society might be unfamiliar to Western audiences, this concern is greatly overblown; I had no more trouble following this than I would a Shakespeare play. The more common complaint among the movie’s rare detractors is that the stylistic transitions Uchida employs are jarring, which I consider to be an asset rather than a liability. The second half of the film, when we follow Yasuna into his delusions, are consistently more engaging and moving than the realist set up–at least, for those of us who value deep imagination over shallow authenticity.
Though respected in his native Japan, Tomu Uchida never broke through to international audiences, for reasons that probably have more to do with bad luck than anything else. The Mad Fox was seldom exhibited outside Japan. Arrow Academy rediscovered and restored this minor classic in 2020 and released it on Blu-ray, where it can now be experienced by the adventurous cinephile with moderately deep pockets.
“People always want an explanation for everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that to them? Eventually they have to explain God.”–Luis Buñuel , “My Last Sigh”
“The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”–Opening epigram to The Exterminating Angel
PLOT: After an elaborate dinner, the many guests of Edmundo Nobile find themselves trapped inside a single room of the mansion; at first they stay under reasonable pretenses, but after sleeping over they become physically unable to pass the room’s threshold. As their high society ways break down from the proximity and lack of provisions, concerned police and citizens on the outside find it impossible to enter to help them. Things degenerate until they attempt a desperate gambit relying on a vision of one of the guests. Meanwhile, sheep and a bear wander around the house.
After briefly returning to his native Spain from his Mexican exile to direct Viridiana, Buñuel went back to Mexico to make The Exterminating Angel after the Vatican denounced the previous film and the Spanish banned it.
Buñuel borrowed the title from a poet friend (José Bergamín) ostensibly for marketing purposes, remarking in his biography, “If I saw ‘The Exterminating Angel‘ on a marquee, I’d go see it on the spot.”
Despite its acclaim (both contemporaneous and otherwise), Buñuel often said he considered The Exterminating Angel a failure. Mostly, he regretted not being able to proceed along a more “cannibalistic” trajectory.
The dozens of repetitions found in the film greatly worried the cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, when he saw the final cut. It took Buñuel to calm him down, assuring Figueroa that it was a creative choice.
Won a “FIPRESCI” award at Cannes on its release.
While Russia at the time banned any number of films for any number of reasons, ironically, this Marxist movie rubbed Soviet officials the wrong way because the theme—not being able to leave a party—was considered anti-government.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Throughout The ExterminatingAngel, the household’s domesticated (pet) bear herds a small clutch of sheep. Wandering around the place with impunity, a shot where the demi-flock scoot up the grand stairway, with the bear taking up the rear, sticks in the mind. The guests’ doom is mirrored by the sheep’s mindless wandering toward the great prison room, ensuring their barbaric destruction.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dead man’s hand; symbolic tasty sheep; a sacrificial host
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A gaggle of bourgeois personages spend more and more time in close quarters with each other—they simply cannot leave the room. The strangeness of their prison is matched by the strangeness found outside: a society that at first doesn’t notice their absence, and then is unable to help them. Time skips like a scratched record, servants are uncannily eager to jump ship, a disembodied hand appears, and animal friends romp around a mansion, adding up to a fine Buñuelian omelet of social commentary and Surrealist comedy.
Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here, part II is here, part III is here, and part IV is here.
How could “Waxworks” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Bloch) go wrong with this subject matter—wax museums are usually rich fodder for the horror genre—and this writer? Unfortunately, a promising opening teeters into an elongated dull stretch, partially redeemed by its stylish “twist” ending. The flaws here seem more to be in the direction than in the writing as the story was filmed again, to better effect, in the 1971 Amicus production TheHouse That Dripped Blood (starring the best and most underrated of Hammer actors, Peter Cushing). Colonel Andre Bertroux (Martin Kosleck) believes the wax figures of Pierre Jacqueline’s Waxworks Museum have committed a series of murders. Antoinette Bower gives a good performance as Annette Jacquelin, and she’s the center of that twist, which reveals a unimaginable truth.
“La Strega”(directed by Ida Lupino and written by Alan Caillou) is “Thriller” (and Lupino) at its near-best. In 19th century Italy, a young girl named Luana (Ursula Andress) is nearly drowned by the village idiots, who believe her to be La Strega (“the witch”). She is rescued by artist Tonio (Alejandro Rey). Tonio takes Luana in, protects her, and eventually becomes her lover. Soon, he encounters Luana’s grandmother (Jeanette Nolan) who is the actual La Strega. When Tonio refuses to divulge Luana’s whereabouts, the grandmother places a curse upon him. Toni turns to Maestro Giuliano (Ramon Novarro) for help, but Giuliano is soon murdered. Tonio’s only recourse is to beg for release from the curse, which leads to a downright grim finale. Nolan is superb as La Strega and Novarro (from the silent Ben-Hur) makes a rare and effective television appearance—chilling in hindsight, given that he is a mere six years away from becoming the victim of one of Hollywood’s most brutal murders. Later in the year, Andrews would become the first and most famous of the Bond girls in Dr. No. This episode moves like quicksilver and is almost flawlessly written and directed.
“The Storm” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by William D. Gordon) also deals with superstition, albeit in a more privatized setting. Newlywed Janet (Nancy Kelly, best known for The Bad Seed) is unsettled by an eccentric taxi driver, but goes home to await the arrival of husband (David McLean). When the power goes out in the middle of a storm, Janet envisions herself subjected to virtually every known horror cliche, until an authentic threat and another impending storm make for a jolting climax. The pacing is not as Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART FIVE→
“All the scenes you will see in this film are true and are taken only from life. If often they are shocking, it is only because there are many shocking things in this world.”
Thus, Mondo Cane not only introduced America to the mondo name and genre, it also was the first shockumentary to play in cinemas internationally, unsettling both critics and audiences who had never seen anything like it.It became a grandfather to countless pseudo-sequels and imitations, including the infamous Faces of Death, and for that reason alone Mondo Cane is of historical importance to bizarre cinema aficionados. Although dated and outdone by its successors, Mondo Cane retains its power to provoke—and that is the sole purpose of this film, which further renders it an original in every way.
Although Mondo Cane has been accused of having a xenophobic perspective, its hard to make that point when the filmmakers (Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti) consistently contrast primitive and western customs through condescending narration. It’s really a series of mostly unrelated film clips. Food is the theme most explored: from Asians eating dog, to rattle snake entrails in the marketplace, to pigs beaten to death in New Guinea, to civilized diners devouring ants in a posh restaurant.
A scene of a sea turtle slowly dying on a radioactive beach is beautifully harrowing and juxtaposed against the extended, revolting spectacle of a bull goring a man to death. While recommending the film to anyone with suicidal tendencies probably would not be a good idea, Mondo Cane is not without some humor, seen in its pet cemetery vignette, and in the contrast of savage native women being fattened to become the bride of a chieftain with Western women rolling their fat away on the floor. Very well-shot and surprisingly endowed with a sterling score (by Nino Oliviero and Riz Ortolani), Mondo Cane is cinema at its most bi-polar and nihilistic. How nihilistic is it? It’s the only film I know of that will inspire the viewer to pity a man-eating shark.
Eegah often makes top ten worst movies of all time lists for a very good reason: it is one of the most wretched movies imaginable. This is another sadomasochistic endurance test from the Arch Hall Sr./Arch Hall Jr. team, which justifiably landed a showing on Mystery Science Theater 3000. That exposure has made Eegah Hall’s most famous film, such as it is. This low budget effort was clearly trying to ride the teen monster fad that began with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and, impossible as it may seem, Eegah was actually something of a hit for its producers.
FEATURING: Nikolay Burlyaev, Evgeniy Zharikov, Valentin Zubkov, Valentina Malyavina
PLOT: A twelve-year old war orphan serves as a scout for the Russian army, repeatedly sneaking over the border to report on German troop positions.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In his debut film, Andrei Tarkovky’s work isn’t yet confidently weird enough, although his decision to wrap this Soviet war drama in dreamy melancholic flashbacks (in stark contrast to the aesthetics of Socialist realism ) was a strong signal of the pioneering direction he would be taking.
COMMENTS: In many ways Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovky’s most conventional work; it’s in a recognizable genre (the war drama) without obscure philosophizing, it’s of a “normal” length (compared to his epic works), and, since the director had not yet begun his experiments with minimalism and ultra-long takes, the pacing is comfortable. There are four dream sequences, but they are all idyllic and tasteful, nothing that would alienate the average moviegoer. So, if you have a friend who is intimidated by slow-paced, three-plus hour philosophical epics like Stalker or Solaris, or if you yourself just want to start in the kiddie end of the Tarkovsky pool, Ivan is the go-to movie. Although it’s stylistically gentler than his later movies, that’s not to say that this debut film is intellectually shallow or atypical of the maestro’s output: all of Tarkovsky’s intelligence and poetry is already on display here. Themes from future masterpieces—the preeminence of the dream, the symbolism of water, careful use of ambiguity—all make their first appearance in Ivan. Anchored by a gritty performance by young Nikolay Burlyaev, who straggles into a base camp half-starved and starts ordering a lieutenant around with the arrogance only a kid can muster but has the right touches of tearful vulnerability at key moments, the story has an easy-to-locate moral and emotional center. Ivan’s childhood has been taken from him by the war. For the most part the wartime scenes are dingy and dark, set in trenches or dirty bunkers. Even the river, the boundary of Russian and German territory Ivan sneaks across the border under cover of darkness, is shot mostly at night, turning it into a cemeterial swamp lined by dead trees. Ivan’s dreams of lost childhood, by contrast, are bright and airy, full of spiderwebs and butterflies and stars that shine from out of wells. Even a ride on a horse-drawn apple cart during a thunderstorm is shot in a negative image so that the shadowy forest glows around the boy. The film’s rhythm of pleasant dream interrupted by gunfire and the call to duty is effective. A relationship between the nurse Masha and Kholin, one of the three officers who together serve as Ivan’s surrogate fathers, interrupts the boy’s story, but is an interesting aside. When the older man catches the dark beauty alone in a copse of white birches, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the dance the two characters engage in is a prelude to seduction or rape. Masha, the only female in the army with a platoon of potential suitors, seems frightened by his commanding demeanor and probing questions; their relationship is never resolved, but the scene develops a great, nervous erotic tension that provides us perspective on an adult world beyond what Ivan knows. His boyhood is inevitably destroyed by the war, but Tarkovsky finds a way to send Ivan off to a heaven thinly disguised as a dream. The ending is one of the enigmatic, just-oblique-enough to pass the censors spiritual moments for which Tarkovsky became famous. Vadim Yusov’s brilliant, fluid black and white camerawork adds immensely to the successful debut of a great cinema talent.
Tarkovsky was given the chance to complete this movie, based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, after another director had failed. Tarkovsky rewrote the script from scratch, adding the dream sequences over the Bogomolov’s objections. Valentina Malyavina, the actress who played Masha, would later serve nine years in prison for murdering a fellow actor.
PLOT: The guests at an upper-class dinner-party are inexplicably unable to leave; their thin veneer of civility rapidly breaks down as conditions worsen.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The predicament in which the protagonists find themselves is utterly irrational, and no explanation whatsoever is offered for it. Sheep and a bear roam the house for only marginally more rational reasons. And along the way we get an ambiguously hallucinatory sequence where a witch summons Satan, who manifests himself as a homicidal severed hand.
COMMENTS: Buñuel himself considered this film to be a failure because he didn’t go far enough—he later regretted not including cannibalism. But all the same, it’s the breakthrough film in which he finally understood that, if you give mainstream audiences a nice simple plot that they can understand with no trouble at all, the justification for that plot can be as weird as you like. And perhaps, as he so often was, he was joking when he publicly stated that it would have been a better film if they’d eaten each other, since ten years later he made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which is a kind of anti-remake that precisely inverts the basic plot of the earlier film (the twist double ending is also neatly reversed). And cannibalism doesn’t occur that time round either.
The shooting title was The Castaways of Providence Street, which Buñuel changed when a friend pointed out that he’d automatically see any film called The Exterminating Angel without stopping to find out what it was actually about. As with The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the titular supernatural being, if it even exists, makes no overt appearance whatsoever. The left-wing agenda is as blatant as it possibly could be. The servants, with the exception of a very faithful butler, are stricken with irrational fear and leave for the flimsiest of reasons or none at all, even if it means their dismissal. The impending punishment is meant for the upper-class scum alone!
And scum they are. The best of them try to be decent but are hopelessly weak. As for the rest… A window broken by a highly-strung guest is casually ascribed to “a passing Jew.” They laugh uproariously when a servant trips on a rug and falls over because they assume he’s been set up to do it for their amusement. They seriously discuss the alleged insensibility to pain of the lower classes by comparing them with animals. They are casually and cynically promiscuous, and explicitly describe sexual continence as a perversion. And even the best of them stimulate their jaded appetites with serious drugs. They deserve everything they get.
And get it they do! This is basically “Lord of the Flies” with adults. Trapped in one room for no reason at all, they suffer hunger, thirst, stench—a man who dies early on is stuffed into a cupboard and remains there for many days in warm weather—and sanitary facilities consisting of a closet full of antique vases (not an issue normally addressed in movies made this long ago). And in addition to all this, they’re horribly spoilt people who can’t possibly get along, and end up squabbling like the lowest guttersnipes: a situation which, towards the end, they temporarily defuse by getting spectacularly stoned, in a sequence which, though very low-budget indeed, is still extremely psychedelic for its time.
Along the way, we get black magic, a doctor who mysteriously confuses baldness with death, and a very, very strange crawling hand sequence with a curious backstory. In his autobiography, Buñuel claimed to have written the outline on which the 1946 movie The Beast With Five Fingers was based, though of course he wasn’t credited. That may or may not be true, but if it is, this scene is his not very oblique reference to it. As with almost all his best films, this is not modern Japanese-level in-your-face-and-all-over-the-place weirdness. But the oddness of it all builds perfectly throughout, culminating in a last-minute resolution that, as so often in Buñuel’s films, is a set-up for a merciless punchline in the epilogue. A classic, and highly recommended.