Tag Archives: 1974

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PENDA’S FEN (1974)

AKA “Play for Today: Penda’s Fen”

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson, Ian Hogg

PLOT: Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Stephen Franklin must come to terms with his emergent homosexuality, lineage, and theological outlook.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Strange visions and societal upheaval get the BBC treatment in Alan Clarke’s adaptation of David Rudkin’s densely packed narrative. While it is littered with theologically-leaning surrealism throughout (including a charming chat with a wry Edward Elgar), Penda’s Fen earns its recommendation from how its many layers, each differently profound, integrate, as Manichaeism, paganism, deep history, military corporatism, labor crises, and sexual awakening un-peel and reincorporate into this philosophical coming-of-age drama.

COMMENTS: Profundity comes crashing right out of the gate in Penda’s Fen, and never lets up. A young man’s voice intones a prayer, of sorts, in the opening minutes as the title card appears over various pastoral scenes: “Oh my country, I say over and over, I am one of your sons…” The protagonist is the seventeen-year-old son of a parson; the era is England at its nadir; and the classical references fly left, right, and center. Simultaneously, Penda’s Fen feels familiar: the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood, coming to terms with himself and his surroundings. The relatability of this awkward character, and the complaisant manner in which the story is told, are a testament to the talents of the leading actor, Spencer Banks, and the story crafters, Alan Clarke and David Rudkin. The gravity of the whole experience strikes deeply into our consciousness, simultaneously opening channels of fascination.

Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is the quintessential goody-two-shoes. He excels in his studies; he enthusiastically partakes in military volunteer training; and he leads debates at school while attending municipal debates after hours. He loves the works of Sir Edward Elgar, particularly “The Dream of Gerontius,” a meditation on death and salvation. Stephen also has feelings for the young milkman, though is not quite aware of their nature. His parents, however, have sussed their son’s leanings for some time, and are accepting thereof—though the father can’t hide his amusement at the well-worn typicality of the recipient of his son’s affection.

As a back-drop to the sexual awakening, there is a local labor agitator who is also a playwright (and also, probably, a homosexual); a secret military installation being built under a nearby field; and ecclesiastical visions. This endless string of semi-colons and splashes of back- and side-story doubtless convey the difficulty in attempting to dissect Penda’s Fen in any brief-but-meaningful way. Discussing the father, with perhaps half an hour of shared screen-time, could fill a slender volume. A profound thinker, his erudite remarks hover along the believable side of esoteric, and coupled with his deeply human understanding of himself and his son, along with an awareness of England’s, and the world’s, pagan antecedents, make him both an unlikely parson, and an unlikely source of love and stability in his son’s life.

And there I go again, listing elements. Let’s change tack. Penda’s Fen was made for television (I shudder to think what appeared on United States television at the time), but this is no detriment. It shows a concise craft: brisk pacing that is never hasty; perfect accompanying music from Elgar; and a sense that the limitations of the screen and budget forced the filmmakers to convey their many (and complicated) messages in as simple, and distilled, a form as possible.

Alas, more semi-colons, more parentheses, more commas. Penda’s Fen is unlike anything I’ve seen before it, and its sprightly ninety minutes deeply explore more concepts and experiences than some of the artiest art-house meditations I’ve been forced to endure for hours on end.

Penda’s Fen is available on a single Region B Blu-ray (which won’t play on most North American Blu-ray players). It is one of the keystone films in Severin’s massive “All the Haunts Be Ours” folk-horror compilation. Another option for American viewers is to sign up for a BritBox subscription (free trial available).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A highly popular play from the reliably weird David Rudkin, with a younger audience than Play for Today was used to, mainly due to its fantasy elements, it has since acquired a reputation as a cult piece of ‘telefantasy’ which, deserved though it is, belies its sophistication.”–TV Cream (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chris Reynolds, who described it as a “metaphysical journey of a young boy in rural England [wjo] encounters symbolic figures representing Britishness who begin to disrupt his notions of identity..” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PHASE IV (1974)

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DIRECTED BY: Saul Bass

FEATURING: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick

PLOT: Following a mysterious cosmic event, ants in a remote corner of Arizona are acting strangely, and a pair of scientists are out to determine if the insects’ behavior has implications for the future of humanity.

Still from Phase IV (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Given the parts and tools needed to make a monster movie, a master of Hollywood imagery chooses instead to make a kind of video essay envisioning humans and ants becoming one in a sort of neurological singularity. Surprise of surprises, no one really got it, but it lingers in the memory as an example of genre filmmaking providing a platform for genuinely idiosyncratic visions. The film, like its director, is one of a kind.

COMMENTS: Saul Bass is the strangest kind of movie legend. While everyone else was trying to earn fame as an actor or an auteur, or the more adventurous hoped to become a household name as a writer or a composer, Bass carved out a lasting legacy as a master of marketing and design. His graphic skills are still revered as some of the finest and most memorable film posters and title sequences (the latter in partnership with his wife, Elaine) ever devised for the medium. He built a second career for himself as the creator of some uncommonly memorable corporate logos, and his distinctive style even earned him his own Google Doodle. His skill at capturing a movie’s mood soon carried over into the filmic storytelling itself: what could have been a simple end credit sequence to Around the World in Eighty Days became a six-minute animated epic retelling of the tale audiences had just sat through; some accounts (including that of Bass himself) give him credit for crafting Psycho’s iconic shower sequence; and his own dabblings in short filmmaking earned him three Oscar nominations, claiming the short documentary prize for “Why Man Creates.”

All this is to say, when you sit down to watch the sole feature film that Bass ever helmed, you should know not to expect anything traditional or commonplace. Yet audiences and executives alike seem to have been completely unprepared for the kind of movie that Bass intended to make. The subject matter suggests a B-movie with cheap thrills, a la Empire of the Ants or Kingdom of the Spiders. To think that Saul Bass would get control of a film and make something  uninspired is to fail to read the man at all.

For one thing, it’s probably the most delicately paced nature-on-a-rampage movie ever made. Like a metaphysical take on The Andromeda Strain, the film pits methodical scientists against a mysterious phenomenon they are just beginning to understand, and we see their step-by-step process as they test out pesticides and make halting first steps at communication. It feels real, if not suspenseful; the closest thing we have to a ticking clock is the ever-present threat of the government withdrawing a funding. It’s a thriller for tenured university professors.

Bass and screenwriter Mayo Simon are far less interested in the human side of the tale. With the scientists played by the classically arrogant Davenport and the determinedly milquetoast Murphy, and Frederick’s ingenue mainly present to facilitate the ending and to provide the geography for an entertainingly creepy ant’s-eye tour, there’s not much to latch onto. It’s not as though you’re rooting for them to die, but you’re definitely not invested in whether or not the scientists live. Especially when you’ve got the convincingly creepy world of the ants to reckon with. From their 2001-style monolithic creations on the Arizona plains (Arizona being played, oddly enough, by Kenya) to their elaborate funeral ceremonies, the bugs are where it’s at. The close-up photography of Ken Middleham (who cut his teeth capturing similar up-close insect footage for The Hellstrom Chronicle) is absorbing and brings character and nuance to the ant populace, in a way that no present-day CGI take on the material could ever manage.

Adding Phase IV to our list might have been a no-brainer, had the producers not chosen to cut a four-minute chunk out of the movie’s finale. The released cut leaves you with an enticing uncertainty, as the surviving humans are left to contemplate their unknown future. But that’s nothing compared to the original vision (recently rediscovered and offered on a French Blu-Ray release and as an iTunes extra), in which the transcendental implications of the coming conjunction of life on Earth are explored and the true meaning of the film’s title is revealed. With Dalí-esque landscapes, an unsettling soundscape created by Stomu Yamashta, and a cacophonous mix of solarization, overlaid imagery, and off-kilter angles, it almost manages to capture the unseeable vision of a biosphere transformed. In some respects, it’s the greatest Saul Bass opening sequence ever: a prelude to the evolution of the human race.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Think of it as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of treacherous ant movies… it’s a gorgeous and strange film to look at, accentuated by Brian Gascoigne’s sparse and eerie electronic score.” – Jim Knipfel, Den of Geek

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

VIDEO CAPSULE: LEGACY OF SATAN (1974)

A rare (our first, in fact) video review. If these prove popular we’ll make more! For hilariously campy viewing at your next Halloween party, please ask for Legacy of Satan (1974), a low-budget devil cult movie adapted by Deep Throat‘s from a script originally intended for a hardcore porn production. Review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, narrated by Giles Edwards.

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)