Tag Archives: 1974

CAPSULE: KILLDOZER (1974)

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DIRECTED BY: Jerry London

FEATURING: Clint Walker, Carl Betz, Neville Brand, James Wainwright, Robert Urich, James A. Watson Jr.

PLOT: Construction workers on a remote island inadvertently unearth a meteor containing a malevolent spirit from beyond the stars, which proceeds to possess a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer and stalk the men.

Still from Killdozer (1974)

COMMENTS: We rely on our machines, but we don’t trust them. They function in ways that produce the illusion of sentience, but most of us can’t begin to understand how they work. Particularly unsettling are the ones that we operate like beasts of burden. They are faceless, eyeless mammoths that dwarf us, and the damn things move. The Car… Duel… Christine… big soulless behemoths that girdle the globe clearly tap into a raw, soft spot in our primal brains. So it only stands to reason that a particularly powerful beast – like, I don’t know, say… a bulldozer – would prove especially stimulating to our amygdalas.

The title, therefore, does a lot of the work. Killdozer is a magnificent portmanteau, forcing a chuckle at the pure chutzpah of the enterprise. Like Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado, it promises delightfully absurd levels of bloodlust and mechanized mayhem. Alas, it ultimately cannot deliver on that promise, and doesn’t really seem to want to.

The possessed crawler would seem to have a lot going for it as an unstoppable killing machine: it’s very big, it’s made entirely of impenetrable metal, and it can level anything in its path. One thing that the possessed earthmover does not have in its arsenal is speed, and that probably results in the greatest disconnect between terror and reasonable fear. Lacking even the handling and acceleration of a Roomba, a grisly fate at the hands (treads?) of the Killdozer seems eminently avoidable. Perhaps that’s why it spends so much of the film biding its time, watching from the underbrush or peering down from lofty hills, somehow clothed in stealth despite being enormous and bright yellow and spewing black smoke and deafening noise.

Does that sound dumb? Well, the Killdozer turns out to be well-matched against its prey. The cadre of construction workers frequently runs directly into harm’s way. One dives for cover inside a metal pipe. Another stares into the vehicles headlights like a deer, waiting patiently for the lumbering killer to reach him. And leading the way for humanity is Clint Walker, with his modeling-clay voice and taciturn visage. We’re told that he is suffering from mortal blows to his credibility and self-assurance thanks to bouts with the bottle. Ultimately, though, he displays about as much personality as his opponent.

Perhaps most surprising – and to the film’s great detriment – is the extreme earnestness with which it treats this remarkable situation. No postmodern irony for Killdozer. It’s deadly serious, this tale of an enormous piece of construction equipment gone mad. Which is extraordinary, because if you can’t flash a wry smile at a movie called Killdozer, what else have you got?

So Killdozer doesn’t have much to offer (except possibly as promotional material for Caterpillar, should they ever wish to extol the destructive power of their products). As a title, it’s a cute punchline. But as a movie, it’s probably best left buried.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite having a place in the bad movie vernacular, Killdozer is really a crushing bore of a film that never lives up to the cheesiness its title and premise promise. The film is very slow going, even more slow moving than the titular bulldozer itself.”  – Jon Condit, Dread Central

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

CAPSULE: COONSKIN (1974)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Philip Michael Thomas, Barry White, Charles Gordone

PLOT: Samson and Preacherman head out on an all-night drive to spring Pappy and Randy from prison; while waiting outside the prison wall, Pappy regales them with the tale of how Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox take Harlem over from the corrupt NYPD and racist Mafiosi.

COMMENTS: Many movies fall into the “they don’t make ’em like they used to” category; Coonskin earns a “there’s is no way they could make this these days” rating. Rarely have I seen a movie filled with so much vitriol, much less an animated film.

Ralph Bakshi is, for lack of a better phrase, altogether something else: an immigrant from Palestine who jammed his fingers on the crackling pulse of American racial discord. Bakshi not only directed and wrote Coonskin, but also penned the lyrics for the eye-wateringly uncomfortable opening song, “Ah’m a Niggerman”–performed masterfully by Scatman Crothers in profile over the opening credits. While Ralph Bakshi may have improved as an animator and storyteller afterwards, in Coonskin he is at his most impressively polemical.

Taking obvious (and unashamed) inspiration from the “Uncle Remus” stories (collected in the late 19th-century by another interloper into Black culture, Joel Chandler Harris), Bakshi sets up a jailbreak framing story. Preacherman (Charles Gordone) and Samson (Barry White) have until dawn to high-tail their Chrysler to the prison holding their friend Randy (Philip Michael Thomas), who awaits them–accompanied by fellow escapee, Pappy (Scat Man Crothers)–at the base of the prison wall. To pass the time, Pappy tells a story about a trio of enterprising Black fellows from Kansas who migrate to Harlem, a supposed Black meccah, to shake off the hayseed racists in their hometown. Once in Harlem they’re disillusioned by faux-militant Black preachers, intimidated by the grotesques of the New York City police department, and harried by a vicious Mafia godfather. Throughout, Miss America cruelly teases, taunts, and tramples on a Black Everyman.

Coonskin is a visually jarring experience, as mid-’70s New York City is overlaid with Warner Brothers’-styled animation and antics. A nasty, bloody bar fight pitting Brothers Rabbit, Bear, and Fox against another Black gang of extortionist thugs has its zany qualities, accompanied by sound effects lifted straight from Looney Toons. There’s an awkward encounter when Brother Bear and his Black lady-friend are approached by two (live-action) whiteys who are just darn pleased that the establishment’s owners have finally allowed Blacks–with their “colorful dress” and everything–into the formerly whites-only restaurant. Visual gags abound during cemetery scenes. And every single stereotype is pushed to the absolute maximum in animation.

The narrative framing device nicely anchors the surreal trips and diversions through which Bakshi drags the viewer. All the vocal (and physical) acting is spot-on, with a genuine feel to it–though I must emphasize that when Bakshi is making a point, the performances have a genuine stereotype feel. Malevolent flights of animated fantasy involving violent hallucinations, exploitative symbolism, and even demonic undertones mix liberally with the social commentary. But Bakshi’s intentions are clear: the 1987 release came with the warning, “This film offends everybody.” Any Blacks, whites, gays, Jews, Italian-Americans, and cops take note: this is hard stuff. This is angry stuff. And Coonskin doesn’t care what you think.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Bakshi] seems a little at sea in Coonskin, and his episodes don’t really add up to a coherent whole, but the movie’s filled with vitality and visual exuberance we get a sense of life from the film that’s all the more absorbing because ‘cartoons’ aren’t supposed to seem ‘real’.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argued “throw in some dazzling hallucination sequences, absurdly grotesque caricatures of classic depictions of African-Americans in pop-culture, a subterranean Mafia organization with a little clown hit-man, an obscenely hilarious “romance” scene involving Ms. America, and hell, even an excessively obese con-man posing as a negro messiah shooting at portraits of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon while hoisted in mid-air, among other things that I shall not spoil, and you got one peculiarly odd curiosity of an animated film in your hands.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)

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Chi Sie?, AKA The Devil Within Her

DIRECTED BY: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Robert Barrett

FEATURING: Juliet Mills, Gabriele Lavia, Richard Johnson

PLOT: Jessica is having a baby; but maybe it’s going to be a little imp?

Still from Beyond the Door (1974)

PRE-COMMENTS DISCLAIMER: If I am to go on reviewing rip-offs of The Exorcist, I need to come out of the closet about something. This may be a shock, but here it goes: I HATE the original Exorcist! If you don’t hate it, that’s because you have “Exorcist syndrome,” which causes you to only remember the final twenty minutes of the movie.

I admit, those last twenty minutes are a good horror movie.

As I time it, the first 1:06:46 running time of the movie is a boring medical sitcom called “What’s the matter with Regan?” We wade through tests, doctors, therapists, prescriptions, brain scans, hypnotists, aromatherapists, dietitians, horoscopes, so on forever. Somebody finally utters the word “exorcist” at the 1:06:46 mark for the very first time, while we’ve been screaming at the screen “it’s demons, you idiots!” all along. It is frustrating and boring because we could see the poster for the movie when we walked in. It said “THE EXORCIST,” not “The Exorcist Who Wasn’t Needed Because It Turned out to Be ADHD.” Then, finally, the movie truly begins at the hour+ mark as we start setting up for the last twenty minutes, which again, are awesome.

So everybody take a minute to get over that. Cry into a pillow if you need to. Go watch the movie again before you respond here. Deep breath together now. At least I made you forget about the coronavirus for a minute, right? Onward with the review:

COMMENTS: Beyond the Door prepares you for a goofy time when you see there’s tag-team directors on board as well as no less than ten, count ’em, writing credits. We have Juliet Mills of Nanny and the Professor fame—in a horror movie? She’s going to play a San Francisco native while making absolutely no effort to hide either her London accent or the fact that she’s completely out of her depth here. It turns out that not only does this movie rip off The Exorcist (1973), but it also helps itself to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for an aperitif. By the opening credits, we’ve encountered Satan himself narrating to us with dialog you’ll swear was lifted from Zardoz‘ opening, complete with cute puns. Satan browbeats a Bearded Trenchcoat Creepy Dude (hereby known as “BTCD” until he gets a name) into taking on his next infernal mission: find a pregnant woman who shall whelp Satan’s spawn (I dunno, it’s a prophecy or something, go along with it). Did I mention the snazzy ’70s funk and experimental jazz soundtrack? This is Eurotrash, but it’s the finest grade Eurotrash, never good but also never boring.

Meet Jessica Barrett (Juliet Mills), wife of Robert Barrett (Gabriele Lavia). He’s a music executive, and the pair are parents to two snot-nosed little brats with foul mouths. Minutes in, we find out Jessica’s Continue reading CAPSULE: BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)

2*. CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974)

Céline et Julie vont en bateau

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“Each of us is the other half of our divided and ambiguous selves. The art of acting implies a dual personality and between the two of us we were able to create an organic whole.” –Juliet Berto

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: , Dominique Labourier, , , Barbet Schroeder

PLOT: Céline is in a hurry and drops a number of props as she passes Julie on a park bench, who picks them up and follows her, picking up more dropped accessories on the way. Their friendship thus established, Céline relates an odd tale about a dreamy encounter in a suburban mansion. The two friends find themselves investigating their memories in an attempt to solve a long-dead mystery and prevent a tragedy.

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the “Special Prize of the Jury” at the Locarno International Film Festival as well as being an “Official Selection” at the New York Film Festival on the year of its release.
  • Despite its light-hearted tone, shooting Céline and Julie was a comparatively tense affair. It was the cameraman’s (Jacques Renard) first movie, and shooting had to be completed in 20 working days over a four week period.
  • The “film-within-a-film” idea was built in from the beginning of development, even though writer/director Rivette didn’t know what the inner “film” was going to turn out to be at the time of inception.
  • Henry James’ story “The Other House” ultimately became the inspiration for the dream narrative shared by Céline and Julie.
  • An alternate title for the film, Phantom Ladies Over Paris, became something of a joke with the crew during production, having been suggested as what the movie would be titled if it had been American.
  • “Vont en bateaux” (“going boating”) has an idiomatic meaning in French, suggesting that one is following an outlandish narrative—the equivalent of a “shaggy-dog story”.
  • Celine and Julie provided the inspiration for Susan Seidelman’s 1985 comedy, Desperately Seeking Susan.
  • Celine and Julie go Boating was one of the top three vote getters in 366 Weird Movies first Apocryphally Weird movie poll, making it one of the most popular weird movies left off the 366 Weird Movies canon.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The whimsical double scene in the library is probably the most important for establishing the titular characters. Julie sits at her desk, doing clerical work that her coworker interrupts for a Tarot reading. In the background, Céline sifts through children’s books in a nearby room. In one volume, Céline uses a bright red marker to outline her hand while Julie sits at her desk playing with her red ink pad, making random markings on a sheet of paper with her fingertips. Tying the two together with this imagery handily conveys the connection between these two mysterious women.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Roller-skate library break-in; memory candies

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jacques Rivette has made a usual movie-within-a-movie, but goes extra steps beyond that “norm” with additional flourishes. The ghostliness of the inner narrative fuses oddly with the surrounding light-heartedness, rendering it almost a “horror-comedy.” Slippery memories give Céline and Julie Go Boating a feeling akin to ResnaisJe T’aime, Je T’aime and Last Year at Marienbad, while other diversions bring to mind Truffaut’s nouvelle vague realism. And, of course, the candy-based memory inducement is weird in its own right.

Trailer for Céline and Julie Go Boating

COMMENTS: In the whimsical spirit of the movie, I shall begin by remarking, yes, my friend, don’t worry: Céline and Julie do indeed go Continue reading 2*. CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974)

CAPSULE: RHINOCEROS (1974)

DIRECTED BY: Tom O’Horgan

FEATURING: , , Zero Mostel

PLOT: Stanley is an alcoholic accountant. Everyone else turns into a rhinoceros.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: O’Horgan’s adaptation of an absurdist play features too much stagey kookiness to work well as a film—which is a pity, because it has a weird premise that, when the tone is right, shows the potential it had as an unsettling commentary on the nature of man.

COMMENTS: Before ascending to the lofty heights of film criticism, I led a something of an artistically minimal life between college and my first reader-submitted review. So it is with a long-stretched arm that I reach back to my school days of Theater Drama, particularly when I was an assistant director my senior year of high school. Through early college I occasionally partook in what Tom O’Horgan described as “a ritualized version of a piece of art”, both offstage and on it. I bring you this somewhat long-winded reminiscence so that you may believe when I say: “theater” and “film” are two entirely different beasts.

As an adaptation of an absurdist bit of theater, the fine points of Hippopotamus‘ plot are inconsequential. Indeed, my summary above could probably be trimmed by a word or two. That said, I regret to inform you even the incredible talent of Gene Wilder on screen fails to compensate for the scattershot approach O’Horgan takes off of it. Half of it is too stagey—with an unfortunate tilt toward “zany”—which compromises Rhinoceros in two ways. First, the handful of scenes of rhino-related destruction and transformation come across as, “Look at how off-the-wall and Damn-the-conventions we are!” Second, Rhinoceros is only a comedy in the same way that Waiting for Godot is: the small snippets of absurd humor are only there to (thinly) paper over the underlying message about the dispiriting pointlessness of life.

On occasion, though, O’Horgan manages to hit the right tone. A scene with Stanley, Gene Wilder’s character, slinking—late—into the office after a discussion about Race, Religion, Capitalism, and Other Topics Found In Plays, crescendos into some buffoonery. It is immediately followed by a haunting interlude where Stanley leaves a subway car, elbowing past faceless masses, passed by faceless pedestrians and workers as he walks the streets. They aren’t actually faceless, they just have hats, buckets, anything covering them. Like the guilty revelers after a crazy party, they shun others’ gazes as they realize the epidemic’s magnitude: who will be next? This is echoed in an altogether strange hallway walk through fear, hitting an apex with a dream sequence/musical number that finds Stanley in a zoo cage as his work-crush cavorts with his friend.

Rhinoceros is almost saved by the presence of Gene Wilder. He seems to be the only one who got the memo that this project was being recorded on film as a movie. As the scene demands, he has a subtlety of expression, a softness of tenor, or a naturalistic reaction to the absurdness around him. If O’Horgan had grasped this need for understatement, the movie would have been a Certifiable genius piece of work. As it stands, the viewer can only hope for snippets of unnerving pathos littered sparsely through a big dish of hammy excess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…not ideal film material, being an example of the kind of theater of the absurd that should be played like old-time farce within a stylized, three-sided set or, perhaps, within no set at all. Even though the film never shows us any real rhinoceroses, the realism of the movie camera is undeniable. It reduces things absurd to the status of the merely silly.” –Vincent Canby, New York Times (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.)

 

335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Weirdest!

Recommended

Le fantôme de la liberté 

“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Hélène Perdrière, Pierre-François Pistorio, , François Maistre, , Pascale Audret, , Adriana Asti, many others

PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
  • The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator , the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
  • This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.

Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)

COMMENTS: Working with , Luis Buñuel began his career with a cannonball to the gut of rationality, the incendiary eye-slitting classic Un Chien Andalou. It was a barrage of disconnected Continue reading 335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)