Tag Archives: 1980

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MOTEL HELL (1980)

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DIRECTED BY: Kevin Connor

FEATURING: Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Paul Linke

PLOT: Out in Rural, USA, Farmer Vincent operates both the “Motel Hello” and a popular smokehouse; neither business is entirely kosher.

Still from motel hell (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Quirky horror is always fun, and so is Motel Hell. However, the extra little touches added to Kevin Connor’s grinder make this a weird little morsel to ingest: psychedelics, home-spun folksiness, a human garden, and the left-field cameo from Wolfman Jack (as the local priest, no less)—all come together to make something strangely delicious.

COMMENTS: As Nietzsche didn’t quite say, “…if you gaze long enough into a sausage, the sausage will gaze back into you.” There is a strong philosophical undercurrent (casing, even) to Motel Hell. Our spiritual teacher is Vincent Smith: pig farmer, motelier, and all around stand-up country gent. Rustic affability courses through his veins, and cheery wisdom bubbles up through his placid surface. He treats his animals humanely; he is affectionate to his simple-minded sister; his guests are all graced with his decorum. And he has a plan to help God to save the world: through transforming sinful passers-by into the best damned smoked meat you can find.

Director Kevin Connor lays out his cards right quick, just in case you didn’t quite grasp the nuance in the film title. Meet Vincent. Meet Ida. Meat farm. Vincent and his sister are pranksters, spooking the twin girls of two guests. But later that night, he lays a trap for a passing motorcyclist and his far younger lover, harvesting the former and seducing-cum-adopting the latter. However, being so smitten as I am by Rory Calhoun’s charm, I’ve already gotten ahead of the game.

One of the delightful oddities in this B-movie blood comedy is just how Vincent and Ida prepare their meat. Sure, sure, there’s a smoking process and “secret spices” (as to be found in the smokehouse, labeled exactly as such), but there’s also the prep work. It involves holes in the ground, gunny bags, feeding funnels, and, when it is time to harvest the flesh-crop, some swirling spin rays, to give the harvest a “…radical, hypno-high. Heavier, but smoother than any trip [they’ve] ever had.” Beyond the groovy head-trips (chuckle along with me), Vincent brings a solemnity to his work. As he openly muses after a gathering, “Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these acts.” His sister Ida, on the other hand, does not wonder. She just likes her work and, even more-so, the tasty snacks which ensue.

Motel Hell is a silly movie with cleverness, uneven acting, and a fun little chainsaw duel thrown into the mix. Connor and his team are obviously having fun, and are more than happy to provide the audience with blood, surprises, and some obligatory T&A. I enjoyed many a chuckle, and sounded an outright guffaw at Vincent’s scandalous confession at the climax. There are weirder movies, there are bloodier movies, and there are sillier movies, but Motel Hell, like Vincent’s secret blend, is a perfect balance of all these ingredients.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s meant to be weird, campy and funny but settles for being tasteless, gruesomely awkward and moronic.”–Dennis Schwartz, Dennis Schwartz Reviews

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: HARLEQUIN (1980)

AKA Deadly Forces, The Minister’s Magician

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Simon Wincer

FEATURING: , , Carmen Duncan, Broderick Crawford

PLOT: Senator Rast’s cancer-stricken son is healed by a stranger with supernatural abilities, but the magician’s presence in the politician’s household leads to friction with behind-the-scenes malefactors.

COMMENTS: The modern Western world is no place for honest magic, but is instead a morally murky landscape riddled with assassinations, machinations, trysts, twists—and deadly medicine. This is the world of Nick and Sandra Rast; the former a prominent politician, the latter a wealthy daughter of an ambassador. Despite their luck and luxury, they are cursed with a leukemia-stricken son, one who is soon to leave this world despite his father’s power, his mother’s care, and endless blasts of radiation. Th birthday party for the wheelchair bound boy, hairless from chemotherapy, is glum. But a the party clown brings laughter, and summons thunder with the prick of an invisible needle.

The boy’s survival is only in question for the film’s first ten minutes or so, as director Simon Wincer conjures a miracle (the first of many) in the form of Gregory Wolfe, faith-healer, probable sorcerer, and donner of flamboyant costumes. Harlequin is a flashy story which unfolds deliberately, as all manner of tricks springing forth from Gregory (who may well be a charlatan) are met with skepticism and underhanded calibrations. The countervailing forces—or, to un-mince words, forces of evil—work under the close direction of “Doc” Wheelan (a grubbily dangerous Broderick Crawford), who have conspired for some years to launch, maintain, and advance Nick’s career. There are a none-too-subtle undertones of ancient versus modern and belief versus technology, but Wincer raises enough doubts about Wheelan to make the viewer suspect that he, too, may be more than his collection of cryptic remarks, pitch-black sedans, and well-armed thugs. Even beyond all the mischievous shenanigans from Gregory, I became deadly curious what angle “Doc” was coming from.

Harlequin magically dodges the fate of being judged merely by what it could have been. (It could have been a feature starring and , who were originally attached to the project.) But Simon Wincer’s mystical oddity is the kind of political thriller I have not seen before: a (then) contemporary suspense ride which takes the prospect of true magic seriously and in stride. Robert Powell’s performance falls somewhere between ‘s immortally cynical Withnail and ‘s immortally flamboyant Frank-n-Furter—generally for the best, but not always. And the film shows its age at times: the hairstyles (often) and the score (occasionally) scream vintage “soap opera.” But is never sloppy. By the finish I found myself talking to Nicholas Rask on-screen as he pondered a fateful decision. And I feel no shame having become wrapped up in this intermittently hokey ride. By the time I realized who this film was actually about, I also realized the dark and whimsical interlayering of good and evil had enchanted me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A bizarre mix of rambling theology and mysticism mixed up with modern day political nastiness, Harlequin is an interesting and multi-layered film that will probably alienate as many as it will captivate. It’s a genuinely odd film.” — Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SIR HENRY AT RAWLINSON END (1980)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Roberts

FEATURING: Trevor Howard, Patrick Magee, Denise Coffey, J. G. Devlin, Vivian Stanshall

PLOT: As villagers descend upon the English estate of Rawlinson End to celebrate The Blazing, the eccentric lord of the manor Sir Henry is persuaded to bring in outside help to exorcise the ghost of his unfortunate brother, whom he shot in an unfortunate hunting accident and who is unable to pass on to the next plane without his trousers.

Still from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The film incarnation of Vivian Stanshall’s spoken-word radio prattle series is a fitting adaptation. It’s a melange of relentless mockery of the English upper class, Dada-esque mishmash of characters and situations, full-bodied embrace of inappropriateness, inveterate wordplay, and plummy lost-up-its-own-duodenum narration, with a visual style that places one brow-raising tableau after another into a curiously nostalgic atmosphere. It’s nutty from the jump and never eases off.

COMMENTS: It seems that the first tale of the eccentric Sir Henry Rawlinson was a desperate improvisation, a last-minute creation of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band leader Vivian Stanshall to fill out the too-short B side of a new album. Among the lovers of Britain’s penchant for absurdist, nonsensical humor, Sir Henry was a hit, and Stanshall created new – well, stories doesn’t seem like the right words – installments on John Peel’s radio show, and then released them as spoken-word albums. So a transition to the silver screen is maybe not a surprise, but it is remarkable how many of its most uncinematic traits have made the jump untouched.

Viewers of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey” might recognize the milieu, but the goings-on are something else entirely. Like a demented “Prairie Home Companion,” the “Rawlinson End” stories are meandering tales of a community filled from top to bottom with insane people doing insane things. Stanshall doesn’t look down on his creations, but he vividly reveals them for the defiantly venal, crude, and obnoxious people they are. The hoity-toity visitors could easily be renegades from ’s Upper Class Twit of the Year competition, while the help are no less mad, running miles from one end of the estate to the other and unspooling directionless monologues about the misfortunes of others. Happily, there is no tedious audience stand-in to remind you that these nutters are “not like us.” The only logic to be found here is the ill kind.

Barely a frame of film is allowed to flicker without a trace of absurdity: a man plays snooker while on horseback, a barbershop trio appears perched on the edge of a lake. Stilt walkers, vaudeville duos, Egyptian priestesses, all show up randomly and vanish as quickly. And if you long for consistency, well… so much flatulence. Every line of dialogue is overwrought; no ten-word sentence will be uttered when a 30-word polysyllabic phrase will do. Names are wonderfully absurd when they’re not blatantly vulgar. The wordplay is relentless and there’s nothing linear at all. You get the sense that if you chopped the film up into 5-minute segments and rearranged them, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Sir Henry is at the center of all this madness, and he’s more than worthy of it. As portrayed by the esteemed actor (and proud drinker) Trevor Howard, Sir Henry is bonkers above all others. Howard supposedly relished the role (which afforded him the chance to spew such bon mots as “If I had all the money I’d spent on drink, I’d spend it on drink”); and it’s unlikely anyone else was going to offer him a part where he could don blackface and a tutu and pretend to unicycle down a country path. He’s precisely as rude and officious as a member of the English landed gentry ought to be: he belittles the staff (“If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth forcing someone else to do it”), shoots skeet with pretend paratroopers (when he’s not trying to gun down actual hang gliders), keeps his own personal German POW camp on the estate, and complains vociferously when the urine from a dead dog waters down his liquor. It’s a real credit to Howard that even amidst a film of crazies, he truly stands out.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is a triumph of nonsense. The hint of plot is immaterial to the proceedings; it’s about being batty. The closest the film comes to a mission statement arrives in the very last line of dialogue, a hint from the narrator about the action in a possible future tale: “There is considerable misunderstanding.”

Sadly, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is unavailable on streaming platforms, and can only be found on a Region 2 DVD (which will not play in most North American players). Hopefully this situation will be rectified in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Parts of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End could be described as being slightly Python-esque but such a comparison doesn’t really do this bizarre and determinedly unique and original film justice. While Sir Henry at Rawlinson End does contain its fair share of endearingly daft moments, it remains more than anything a genuinely surreal, uncompromising and biting social satire… If you can imagine a very English satirical comedy that just happens to quite naturally project the kind of intensely strange ambience that is more commonly associated with arthouse oddities like the Quay Brothers’ Institute Benjamenta, I guess you’re part way there.” – Lee Broughton, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by maxwell Stewart, who called it perhaps the strangest film ever made” and added “Viv Stanshall was a true genius.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ZIGEUNERWEISEN (1980)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Toshiya Fujita, , Naoko Otani, , Kisako Makishi 

PLOT: Two professors and a mysterious geisha form a bond that transcends life and death.

COMMENTS: In the West, Seijun Suzuki is primarily known for his hallucinatory 1960s thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, especially Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Over a decade later, however, Suzuki made a series of three period films set in Japan’s Taisho era (1912-1925). Filled with hallucinatory imagery, intoxicating period atmosphere, and ghostly ambience, in Japan these three films, known collectively as the Taisho Trilogy, are held in equal esteem with Suzuki’s early films; but they have been difficult to find in the U.S. until recently. Arrow Films gave them a limited release in 2017 in a lavish 6-disc DVD/Blu-ray box set, but now Arrow has streamlined both the size and cost of the set, finally putting these three hidden gems back into circulation as part of an affordable 3-disc Blu-ray box set. The extras from the previous set (which include introductions from critic Tony Rayn, a making-of featurette and a vintage interview with the late Seijun Suzuki) have all been carried over to the new release.

The Taisho era was a time of rapid modernization in Japan, but only in certain sectors of society, particularly the upper classes. Traditional ways of life and long-held superstitions about ghosts and spirits remained prevalent even as Western music, clothing, and technology began to seep into society. This is the world in which Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991) take place. Zigeunerweisen opens with two men listening to a 10-inch gramophone recording of the titular “Zigeunerweisen,” a contemporary composition by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, in which a voice is heard saying something unintelligible. They note that hearing this almost inaudible voice is more interesting than the music itself—it’s the voice of someone they’ve never met, the unintentional preservation of an everyday moment which occurred halfway around the world.

The recording will appear again, but it’s not the only case in which characters will be haunted by disembodied voices. Ghosts are very present in the lives of Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a German professor at a military academy, and Nakasago (Yoshio Harada), Aochi’s former colleague and vagabond friend. After parting ways when Nakasogo quit the academy to become a drifter, the two meet in a seaside town where Nakasogo seems to have been involved in the death of a local woman. Suzuki introduces Nakagoso with a feverish montage of close-ups, emphasizing his unkempt good looks and wild man charisma. We then see the a woman lying dead on the ground; a red crab appears from between her legs and fills the screen.

After Aochi helps Nakasago escape from the police and local mob, the two retreat to a local inn, where they entice a mourning geisha (Naoko Otani) to entertain them. Nakasogo is fascinated with her story of her brother’s suicide by poison, and how his white bones turned to pink ashes after being cremated. Nakasogo’s subsequent obsession with bones becomes a central theme throughout the film. He even coerces Aochi into making a pact that whoever dies first will donate their bones to the other.

There are many subplots and suggestions of supernatural intrigue throughout Zigeunerweisen, but it remains mostly submerged beneath the surface, more subtly felt than explicitly expressed. Nakasogo is often insinuated to be a demon in human form, and his secret encounters with Aochi’s wife (Michiyo Okusu) seem to take place in a parallel dream reality. One exception is an early sequence in which Aochi meets Nakasogo’s new wife (also played by Otani) and is enticed into coming back to her house, where a red light ominously flashes and time seems to stand still; Nakasogo’s wife slyly admits that she might be a fox (a common deceiver of humans in Japanese traditional mythology). The film’s chilling climax echoes this scene, bringing the story full circle and finally allowing its supernatural undertones to emerge fully formed.

Even earlier in his career, Suzuki was never a very effective storyteller. As lurid and visually stunning as his 1960s gangster films might be, they’re often unevenly paced and confusing, especially in the case of his hallucinatory tour-de-force Branded to Kill, which was considered so incomprehensible that he was effectively blacklisted from making films in Japan for over 10 years. Zigeunerweisen isn’t quite as difficult to parse out, but even though the running time is longer and the pace is slower, this is still classic Suzuki. The lack of tight storytelling and conventional horror techniques is made up for with imaginative visuals, feverish hallucinations, and a sophisticated sense of the supernatural, which is consistent with Japanese culture and the era in which the film takes place. A fascinating ghost story from the master of surreal Japanese crime thrillers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[W]ith Zigeunerweisen—shot in 1980, after Suzuki took a 10-year break from directing—Suzuki retires the cumbersome plots and predictable settings of his genre films, and lends his bizarre, outrageous, and completely visual language to a bona fide art film.” – John Behling, Slant Magazine

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Günter Lamprecht, , ,

PLOT: After four years in prison, wife-murderer Franz Bieberkopf is released into Weimar Germany; he tries to go straight, but with no means of employment, he soon returns to the criminal underworld, with tragic results.

Still from Berlin Alexanderplatz (epilogue) (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ve toyed with the idea of considering self-contained TV miniseries as “movies” for classification purposes before; Berlin Alexanderplatz, a celebrated masterpiece of world cinema from an auteur with eccentric tendencies but nothing on the List, makes perhaps the best case for loosening our criteria—especially since the result would be classified as “apocrypha” rather than canon. A miniseries adapting Alfred Döblin’s modernist novel, first broadcast on German television, Alexanderplatz is a fifteen hour dive into an enigmatic character told through a fluid mix of straight drama, melodrama, poetic monologue, and surrealism. The two-hour capstone installment, a frenzied passage dubbed “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, An Epilogue,” could well stand alone as a weird movie classic—but it can’t be appreciated without first seeing the thirteen hours that came before.

COMMENTS: Oddly, it was the second episode that sold me on Berlin Alexanderplatz. The first introduced our protagonist, Franz, newly released from prison after a four year stay, briefly suffering from disabling agoraphobia until a friendly Jew tells him an obscure parable, visiting—and raping—an old acquaintance, and finally swearing an oath to go strait. It was strange stuff, setting up intriguing possibilities, but I was not all-in just yet.

That second episode was, in a way, comparatively ordinary. Desperate for a job, with legitimate employment in 1920s Berlin rare in even for non-felons, Franz agrees to put on a swastika armband—reluctantly—and sell newspapers for the newly-formed Nazi party. This decision causes him trouble when a fellow vendor, who happens to be Jewish, confronts him, followed by an old friend who’s now a dedicated Marxist. Franz, who is proud to be German but has nothing against the Jews (or anyone), eventually quits the job, but not before the gang of Communists accost him in a bar. He almost smooth talks his way out of the confrontation, but can’t resist responding to their taunts by singing a Nationalist song as a response to their chorus of the “Internationale.” Angered, they back him into a corner. In a frightened fury, one man against a gang, he is forced to raise a chair to defend himself.

It was at this point that I realized that I’d gone from simply following Franz’s story to rooting for the poor reprobate. Fassbinder brought me, slowly, to sympathize with a killer, a rapist, a pimp, and a Nazi Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980)