Tag Archives: 1981

READER RECOMMENDATION: AMERICAN POP (1981)

Reader recommendation by “Jackie”

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Ron Thompson, Lisa Jane Perksy, Jeffery Lippa

PLOT: Centering on a family of musicians from the 1910s to the 1980s, American Pop takes a psychedelic look at the history and evolution of American music whilst telling a story of its own.

Still from American Pop (1981)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: American Pop contains many vivid and flashy surreal images. It’s like a trip through psychedelia that encompasses it’s plot and structure beyond measure.

COMMENTS: This film is important not only for its creativity, but it also has a unique take on American culture. Bakshi’s talent is at its peak with this film. His style is fluid and the film’s visuals are stunning.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bakshi… continues to push animation techniques to the outer limits more frequently explored by film makers who call themselves avant-garde, but who seldom are. His newest film, ‘American Pop,’ is a dazzling display of talent, nerve, ideas (old and new), passion and a marvelously free sensibility.“–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981)

When watching ‘s Road Warrior (1981), one can glean, in hindsight, the extreme right-wing mythologizing seed of its lead actor (). Essentially, Max is an apocalyptic Christ of the desert highway. Like most prophetic characters, he is cartoonish and bland. His sought-after Ark Of The Covenant is petrol, and accompanying him is a canine apostle (what better follower can one have than man’s best friend?)

Miller, fresh off the low budget prequel Mad Max (1979), crafts Road Warrior as a film of infinite stamina; a kind of Jack Chick post-holocaust tribulation on wheels.  He went on to direct a second sequel in 1985, Beyond Thunderdome, which was not quite the cult hit Road Warrior was, despite some critics’ declaring the third entry as the best of the lot. Not having seen it, I am not at liberty to comment, but I suspect Miller’s best works to date are his segment of the Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), which was unquestionably the highlight in that woefully uneven production, along with Babe: Pig In The City (1998).

One of the surprisingly refreshing elements of Road Warrior is a  romance that never materializes (but then, Mel’s macho Christ-like character does have to remain celibate). Of course, Max is just too preoccupied for love, speeding down his existential, two-lane blacktop highway. Temptation of the flesh is hardly his only potential distraction. Rabid, gnostic-styled motorcyclists add to the adolescent S & M milieu.

Miller compared Road Warrior to ‘s The General (1926). That comparison might very well be apt, but despite revisionist assessments, that earlier film, as beautiful and classic as it is, does not have the sustained brilliance of Keaton’s best work. Like The General, at 95 minutes, Road Warrior simply goes on too long.

Still from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)Road Warrior is chock-full of dazzling imagery and the thrills leave you in a state of dismal breathlessness, but after the credits roll, the bleak sentimentality begins to seep in and the film evaporates rather quickly.

Miller succeeds most when dousing Road Warrior in B-movie sauce. If Miller had maintained the pulpy Death Race 2000 flavor, the movie might have been more memorable (and certainly would have been more enjoyable). Unfortunately, the director stretches himself too thin when he missteps by channeling all that symbolic folklore. Like George Stevens’ Shane, Miller is simply too self-conscious in his puffed-up myth making. Max, like Shane and Jesus Christ, takes on antagonists that outsize and outnumber him. It did not work Shane (1953). Nor does it work here.

CAPSULE: THE BEYOND (1981)

AKA Seven Doors of Death

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (as Katherine MacColl), David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale

PLOT: A young woman inherits a hotel that was built over one of the seven gates of Hell.

Still from The Beyond (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it would be hard to deny the irrational aesthetics of The Beyond—this is, in every sense, a weird movie—its filmmaking quality leaves much to be desired. I find The Beyond falls just below the threshold of list candidacy.

COMMENTS: Convoluted and absurd, both by design and by accident, The Beyond is a mess of a horror spectacle, and its effect on a particular viewer can be difficult to predict. You might find it unsettling, or annoying, or sometimes both, in back-to-back scenes. The story lurches from plot point to plot point, racing towards the next shock sequence; long series of frames seem to be snipped out of the film. It begins with a sepia-tinted flashback: in 1927 Louisiana, a mob of torch-bearing villagers track down a “warlock” at a hotel and take him to the basement, where they beat him with chains, crucify him against the wall (is that really the symbolism director Fulci wanted?), and douse him with acid. The gore scenes are accompanied by horrifically inappropriate funk music that sounds like horror-rock band Goblin got infected by boogie fever. Years later, Joe the plumber goes down to the same basement, and unseen forces squeeze his eyeball out of its socket, one of several scenes of ocular trauma (a Fulci specialty). Once his corpse is discovered and taken in for an autopsy, the pathologist decides to hook a brainwave monitor up to the lifeless body, for the hell of it (“why not?”). Lo and behold, his brain has a heartbeat! Later, the insect world’s loudest tarantulas—they chirp like birds—eat a man’s face off. And in the weird and sporadically effective finale, a hospital is inexplicably taken over by zombies, and our fleeing heroes escape via an elevator that leads to the hotel basement!

Like I said, it’s a mess. The Beyond is one of the most divisive movies we consider for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, with critics and horror fans dividing up to defend or attack it in equal measures, and with equal passion. It’s a movie which alternates effectively evocative scenes (a blind girl standing on an empty bayou causeway as a lone car bears down on her) with absolute howlers (the hand-painted “do not entry” sign at the hospital). There is something attractive about the mix of sloppiness and surrealism here, but I think the enjoyment of this film relies on appreciation of a very specific type of incoherence camp that not everyone can vibe to. While I catch a glimpse of what this movie’s champions—many of whom are extremely erudite and eloquent in its defense—see in The Beyond, for me, Fulci’s incompetence and adolescent gore obsessions drown out his flashes of irrational inspiration and visual imagination. This is Lucio Fulci at his very best, but Fulci at his best is about the equivalent of at his worst.

Befitting The Beyond‘s cult status, Grindhouse Releasing’s impressive 2015 Blu-ray Collector’s Edition contains 3 discs: the film, an entire disc of extras, and a CD of the soundtrack.

“…Lucio Fulci’s bold incoherence honors [cinema] as a sensory experience…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

CAPSULE: MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Andre Gregory

PLOT: Struggling playwright Wallace Shawn has dinner with his old friend, theater director Andre Gregory, who describes the mystical experiences he’s had visiting experimental theater workshops and communes around the world.

Still from My Dinner with Andre (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. The concept of a movie that is almost entirely a single dinner conversation is successfully experimental, and some of Gregory’s theories approach the bizarre, but Louis Malle has a couple of better candidates for the List of the weirdest movies of all time out there.

COMMENTS: Based on the description—there’s no plot per se, just two intellectuals sitting down for dinner at a swank restaurant having a conversation–you probably have no interest in seeing My Dinner with Andre, no matter how many times cinephiles tell you it’s a classic. I admit, the synopsis held no great attraction for me; I like Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle, but I never would have sought this movie out on my own, and I approached the prospect of viewing it more with trepidation than anticipation. Frankly, I was hoping it would not be as boring as it sounds—I mean, I like a good chat about life when I’m a participant, but I don’t see talking as a spectator sport. I needn’t have worried; although My Dinner with Andre assumes that you are reasonably intelligent and have a basic liberal education, it’s more accessible than it sounds. And, if you engage with it, it’s also more dramatic than it sounds.

The movie stars playwright/actor Wallace Shawn as a struggling playwright/actor, and avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory as an avant-garde theater director. The conversation is scripted, but it is based on actual discussions between the two men, who play exaggerated, fictionalized versions of themselves. The story begins with a dissatisfied Shawn complaining about his life: his career as a playwright isn’t putting food on the table and all he ever thinks about are his money problems. He is going to dinner with Andre, the theater director who produced his first play but who had recently dropped out of the New York theater scene to travel around the world, returning with strange tales of his adventures. Wally has heard Andre has been acting erratic and is nervous to meet him again. The first part of the dinner is almost a monologue by Gregory, who details his adventures in an experimental theater group in Poland where he directed a group of women who did not speak English; tells tales about his time in the Sahara with a Japanese monk who could balance on his fingertips; and relates a story about a ceremony where he was ritually killed and resurrected. Andre explains that he has been searching for experiences that allow him to be truly human, because he believes that modern man is fatally disconnected from reality. He also explains that, during this period in his life, he would spontaneously hallucinate, seeing birds flying out of his mouth when he looked in the rear-view mirror and a blue minotaur with flowers growing out of its body at midnight Mass. Although Andre is charasmatic, enthusiastic and lucid, these confessions cast him in a strange light. Is he really a mystic? Or does he have a touch of madness? Or is he just a man with an amazing imagination?

Wally listens with increasing interest as Andre relates his exploits, until, in the second half of the conversation, he starts to raise objections and fire back at Andre, whose vision of life he finds intoxicating but impractical. Wally says Andre’s lifestyle is too elitist: not everyone can have these experiences, and there is meaning to be found in reading good books and enjoying a cup of coffee. Neither Wally nor Andre gets the upper hand. Ultimately, Andre doesn’t convince Wally that it’s necessary to take extreme measures to find meaning in life. Yet, Wally still has a sense of epiphany. As he’s leaving dinner, he thinks with wonder of ordinary experiences he’s had: buying a suit, eating an ice cream… Wally comes away from dinner invigorated, not because Andre convinces him to change his life and start “really living,” but because he’s refreshed himself by an encounter with another mind, with another way of thinking about life. The reason My Dinner with Andre works is not because we take sides with either Wally or Andre, but because it reminds us of discussions we’ve had with our own dear friends, where we lose track of time and talk deep into the night. It recalls those treasured times we shared our deepest thoughts, and someone else thought enough of them to challenge us. It’s the conversation that matters, not the words spoken.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the few entrancingly esoteric, radically raw dialectics ever filmed.”–Joseph Jon Lanthier, Slant (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who simply called it “an amazing film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: NIGHTDREAMS (1981)

DIRECTED BY: F.X. Pope

FEATURING: Dorothy LeMay, Jennifer West, Andy Nichols

PLOT: Two scientists observe a woman’s erotic dreams.

Still from Nightdreams (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As the first, and very nearly the only, movie to mix hardcore XXX action with dream logic, Nightdreams is a unique beast. As a curiosity piece it’s something to add to your bucket list, but once the novelty of surrealist porn wears off, Nightdreams is not really a great movie—and it’s worse erotica.

COMMENTS: There’s a reason plotted porn movies never took off. Narrative and intense titillation work against each other; each one is a distraction from the other. Even today, directors like who toy with adding explicit sex to their movies make sure that actual acts of penetration and gynecological detail last only for a few seconds, to keep their stories from drifting into a fap-fest. Surrealism and porn don’t really go well together, either; the weird feeling inspired when a cigarette-smoking fish head pops up in bed next to a lovely lady throws cold water on those sexytime cravings. Written by a young “Hustler” copy writer named Jerry Stahl and that magazine’s “Creative Director” (the two would continue their partnership on the XXX cult film Cafe Flesh and the softcore midnight movie Dr. Caligari), Nightdreams was made by smart people slumming in the gutter, anxious to do something erotically different a) to get themselves noticed and b) to keep from getting bored in the repetitive and formulaic world of porno. Of course, porn is repetitive and formulaic for a reason—its function is to expand viewers’ pants, not their intellectual horizons—so, while Nightdreams got some favorable notice in the scuzz press as some sort of prestige sleaze piece, it didn’t exactly found a subgenre of arthouse smut.

Nightdreams stars Dorothy LeMay as the woman whose sexual imagination is so outlandish it’s the subject of a research project by a pair of scientists in lab coats. Strawberry blond LeMay has a real-world, girl-next-door sexiness that’s refreshing compared to the plasticized glamor of today’s porn starlets, but, based on her line readings, an actress she is not. That’s okay, because she appears to enjoy the weird sex (so maybe she is a great actress, after all). Her fantasies involve sex with a Jack-in-the-box (accompanied by creepy anti-erotic laughter), a campfire threesome with two lithe cowgirls (while Wall of Voodoo sings a cool New Wave rendition of “Ring of Fire”), servicing a couple of hookah-smoking sheiks, meeting a man with a fetus in his pants, a pseudo-rape scene over a toilet, and rutting with the Devil in Hell, followed by a romantic coupling with an angelic stud in Paradise. The movie’s most memorable sequence, no doubt, is when Dorothy fellates a living rendition of a Cream of Wheat box while serenaded by a jazz version of “Old Man River.” Her head bobs back and forth to the music, and a piece of toast shows up to accompany the couple on sax. It’s an unusual sight, to say the least. Like most of Nightdreams‘ scenes, it’s too weird to be erotic, but too insistently porn-y to work as an art installation.

The Cream of Wheat scene is a trademark infringement that the Nabisco company would never condone, and I seriously doubt Johnny Cash would license the rights to “Ring of Fire” for a lesbian threesome scene, either. I suspect Nightdreams got away with these infringements because, in 1981, porn was still relatively taboo, and none of the copyright holders would admit to having seen the film.

The IMDB credits “F.X. Pope”  as Nightdreams‘ director, and lists this as an alias for TV and music video director Francis Delia (who has no other porn connections). However, IMDB also lists “F.X. Pope” as one of Sayadian’s pseudonyms—I had always assumed Sayadian was the director because of the style, and also because he indisputably directed the sequel Nightdreams 2.

Others who worked on Nightdreams include Fast Steppin’ Freddie, Zoot Suit and Pez D. Spencer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…definitely the most unusual and unique porn flick I’ve ever seen… a series of weird, funny, sexy, surreal and twisted dreams.”–Goregirl, Goregirl’s Dungeon (DVD)

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

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)

Steve Martin burst onto the national radar with his comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978). He followed that success by starring in his first feature film, the box office bonanza The Jerk (1979) directed by Carl Reiner and co-starring his then-current flame, Bernadette Peters. Although The Jerk was merely crass instead of authentically humorous, Martin and Peters re-teamed for Herbert Ross’ winningly experimental Pennies From Heaven (1981). Predictably, American audiences smelled something new with the film, and stayed away. Many critics were more astute and praised the film, which prompted Martin and Reiner to briefly follow that attempted path of originality in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Man With Two Brains (1983). Alas, like the rest of that decade, what started in a burst of creative energy petered out midway through and succumbed to formula.

Paralleling the rise and fall of the 1980s was Martin’s work as an interesting artist. He simply ceased to take chances after his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and rendered himself irrelevant. In contrast, Peters continued to challenge herself, instead of taking the safe route. It is her post Pennies career, rather than Martin’s, which is more consistently satisfying.

Pennies from Heaven is an idiosyncratic and delightfully grim film, and it separates authentic critics from the weak-kneed boys by defying the rules of filmmaking and confounding those who expect dogmatic adherence to genre expectations (with due apologies to Mr. Ebert). It startles us even today and seems as fresh and innovative as it did thirty years ago.

 wrote the screenplay, which sprang from his 1978 BBC mini-series of the same name. As in his later script for Dreamchild (1985), Potter achieves a level of unsettling emotional intensity rarely achieved in the medium. Potter and Ross recreate a mythological Depression era, lifted straight from the haunting canvases of Edward Hopper, giving the film its unique texture.

Arthur (Martin) is a down on his luck sheet music salesman trying to ply his wares in a corrupt world. Compounding his frustration is his downright Victorian marriage to Joan (). When Arthur encounters the uninhibited Eileen (Peters), he is not above lying about his marital status.

Still from Pennies from HeavenThe characters lip-synch to songs from 1930s musicals and, surprisingly, it works. Often, Pennies From Heaven supersedes its source material because—let’s be frank—do any of us ever watch period musicals for their emotional depth or narrative substance?

A web of lies, back alley abortions, and the rape and the murder of a blind girl are not going to add up to an Astaire/Rogers happy ending. (Arthur and Eileen even take the place of that famous duo by literally stepping into a scene from 1936’s Follow the Fleet).  has an all too brief scene, doing a slimy striptease as only he can. Martin is refreshingly subdued. We root for him and Eileen, despite his manipulations. Harper is equally good, and it’s a revelation of some kind that her character in 1981 is not the one we are asked to identify with or root for, as we would have fifty years earlier.

Pennies From Heaven was a gutsy movie in 1981. It still is, never once succumbing to bland and pretentious realism, while at the same time never alienating us emotionally. Ross, Potter, Martin, Peters, Harper, and Walken all proved that the good and original musical had not gone the way of the dinosaur. Alas, it took European audiences to respond to them.

CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cliff De Young, Barry Humphries, , Charles Gray, Ruby Wax,

PLOT: A young married couple end up in a town that’s actually a giant television network; Janet is groomed as a celebrity, while Brad becomes a mental patient in a hospital show.

Still from Shock Treatment (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shock Treatment is a cult film even among the tiny subset of cult film enthusiasts. This “sequel” was rejected as a confounding disappointment by most fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but is still vehemently defended by a segment of that fan base. It’s a peculiar exercise in wacky musical satire, for sure, but it lacks the kind of résumé necessary to place it among the most significantly weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS: What would you get if you took The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stripped out Tim Curry‘s domineering performance as the mad scientist transvestite dominatrix, leaving behind only the theater-rock musical numbers and campy supporting players? (On the off-chance you don’t see where I’m going yet, the answer is Shock Treatment). Whereas Rocky Horror was a theatrical flop that organically grew into a cult movie, Shock Treatment was pitched as a deliberate cult movie, but became an instant flop. This delayed follow-up is full of amped-up ideas and energy, but it comes off as cocksure; it’s so convinced its madness is entrancing that it forgets to ground us in its quirky universe. The (confusingly executed) idea is that the entire town of Denton, U.S.A. is a TV studio, with the audience as regular citizens, the stars and staff as sorts of metro officials, and the sponsors as big-money villains manipulating studio politics behind the scenes. The movie throws so many colorful eccentrics at us that every character turns into a minor character, even the leads. Janet (not necessarily the Janet Susan Sarandon played in the previous movie) and Brad (again, a character with the same name but little connection to the original) enter the town’s audience, for unclear reasons, and wind up on a marriage counseling show run by a blind Austrian in an orange thrift-store tuxedo. He hands Brad off to a brother/sister pair of psychiatrists (writer Richard O’Brien, wearing uncomfortable- Continue reading CAPSULE: SHOCK TREATMENT (1981)