Tag Archives: Allegory

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: WHITE TIGER (2012)

Belyy tigr

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DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov

FEATURING: Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaliy Kishchenko, Valeriy Grishko

PLOT: In the closing months of World War II, the Soviet army is confronted by a fearsome opponent in the form of a single, unnaturally deadly tank; the best hope for victory lies with the only man to survive an attack by the armored vehicle, a soldier with retrograde amnesia who survived extensive burns and now possesses an uncanny ability to out-think the machine.

Still from White Tiger (2012)

COMMENTS: They call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov.” The last word literally means “found,” and the name is the Russian equivalent of “John Doe.” He is discovered in the charred remains of a wrecked tank, covered with burns over nearly his entire body. He is nearly given up for dead, but he recovers with astonishing speed. How he could be alive is a terrific mystery, but there’s a war on, with no time for such diversions. He remembers nothing before being found except for the ability to drive a tank, so they call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov” and do the only thing they can do: put him in uniform and throw him back into the battle against the Nazis. 

But World War II is really beside the point, because the real battle is a timeless struggle between two archetypal foes: the soulless killing machine and the pure knight sent to vanquish it. Naydenov and the White Tiger are purposely stripped of identity; the soldier has no past while the tank has no crew. We see the tank wipe out an entire squadron of Soviet vehicles, and it becomes clear why the Russians and Germans alike are terrified of the mechanized death-dealer. Only Naydenov is undeterred; he is able to outwit the tank as no one else can, but they are too perfectly matched for either to triumph.

Presenting the White Tiger as a legitimate threat is a significant task. Other films have tried to depict the malign power of inanimate vehicles, some more successfully than others. The filmmakers use a crafty blend of camera framing, sound design (including a wonderfully unnatural thwoomping sound for the beast’s cannon), and practical effects to give the White Tiger its power. Meanwhile, the character of Naydenov (an evangelically determined Vertkov) has been stripped down to the most basic elements needed to defeat a tank. He has an innate sense of tactics, a prognosticator’s insight into the tank’s next moves, and a zealot’s indefatigable passion for the chase. When Naydenov tells his superior officer that he will pursue his adversary forever, it seems like that’s exactly how long it will take. 

For much of the film’s running time, the movie is taken up with two questions: How will our heroes vanquish this opponent, and what is the mystery behind the two combatants’ hidden identities? Neither of these questions will be addressed in the slightest. Instead, White Tiger takes a truly strange turn in its final act, when it leaves the battlefield to depict Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union (and the other Allied powers, although they barely figure here). This sets up what appears to be the film’s true thesis statement: that the battle between good and evil cannot be confined to nationalities, and that evil only rises up when the will of the masses summons it. A reasonable sentiment, except that it is delivered by, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who suddenly comes to us from beyond the grave to explain to a faceless companion that the Nazis only waged their campaign of death against the Jews because the rest of Europe secretly wanted it but lacked his fortitude, and that the impulse will surely rise again. Not my fault, he insists. The rest of Europe made me do it.

What does this unsettling scene mean? Unfortunately, this question has a ready and alarming answer, and it lies in the fact that this Hitler’s threat and the implicit defense for warfare sounds strikingly similar to the language Russia used to justify its invasion of Ukraine a decade after the film’s release. This can no doubt be laid at the feet of Shakhnazarov, the movie’s director and an extremely vocal supporter of Vladimir Putin. As noted in a recent discussion of the earlier Shakhnazarov film Zerograd, the filmmaker has publicly warned that is Russia were to lose in its current incursion, “it is the West that will have concentration camps ready, and will send all Russians there without mercy.” It’s an almost-exact recapitulation of the take on history that White Tiger’s Hitler provides, and reveals this otherwise intriguing ghost story to be odious propaganda. The weirdest thing about the movie turns out to be its interpretation of good and evil, and just who sits on which side. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, wondrous tale of an eerie white fascist tank that appears, attacks and vanishes, leaving smoldering Russian tanks and cremated corpses in its wake… luckily, Shakhnazarov’s powerful image-making largely subsumes the film’s many peculiarities.”–Ronnie Scheib, Variety (contemporaneous)

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

White Tiger
  • DVD
  • Multiple Formats, NTSC, Widescreen
  • English (Subtitled), English (Dubbed), Russian (Original Language)
  • 1
  • 90

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LA CABINA [THE TELEPHONE BOX] (1972)

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“La Cabina” is officially available on YouTube from the Spanish Radio and Television Organization (rtve)

DIRECTED BY: Antonio Mercero

FEATURING: José Luis López Vázquez

PLOT: A man becomes trapped inside a telephone booth, with no prospects for escape.

Still from "La Cabina" (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “La Cabina” is distilled horror, a bizarre situation boiled down to its most basic elements, unfolding briskly but methodically as it approaches a surprising but inevitable climax. You’ll never really understand what’s going on, but you can utterly empathize with the threatened protagonist and the way his plight only grows more alarming. 

COMMENTS: The fifth and final season of “The Twilight Zone” was noteworthy for giving one of its episodes over to a French short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s darkly cruel “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” With potent visuals and a classically unsettling twist ending, “Occurrence” was a perfect fit for the show, and also went on to nab that year’s Oscar for Best Short Film. It’s fun to imagine an alternate universe where the show continued for years, because “La Cabina” would have been the absolute highlight of a prospective Twilight Zone Season 13. The Spanish short contains all the elements that make for a great episode of the show, right down to a shocking twist that rivals those found in such classic installments as “Time Enough At Last” or “To Serve Man.”

The setup for “La Cabina” is devilishly simple. In the space of a couple minutes, we meet our hero as he sends his son off to school, and then watch him enter the telephone box that we’ve seen a team of workers construct. From there, the film rests on the shoulders of López as he watches helplessly from his Plexiglas cocoon while onlookers laugh at his predicament, good-naturedly try to help, then surrender and lose interest as their efforts bear no fruit. Known in his home country as a comic actor, López adroitly conveys the poor man’s journey from irritation to fear to despair without a word of dialogue. His distress is especially acute as those same construction workers return—not to extricate him but to hoist the box onto a flatbed truck for a long journey to points unknown. Even as he tries to communicate with a similarly trapped traveler or exchanges pitiful looks with a collection of circus freaks who have now found someone they can pity, López never lets you forget that he’s a decent fellow who has found himself in an especially bad spot, which helps to sell the story’s final transformation into surreal horror.

There are theories about what it all means. It could be an allegory for life under the regime of Francisco Franco, when people could be snatched off the street, never to be seen again. Or it might be a metaphor for the uncertainties of life, as a normal day can easily take an unexpected and even tragic turn. It could also be read as an “Everyman”-type tale expressing the notion that when fate comes, nothing can save us. That a very basic tale about a guy who gets stuck in a telephone booth can carry the weight of such interpretations is a testament to the sturdiness of Mercero’s storytelling. “La Cabina” is truly remarkable, though, for the wonderful outlandishness of its “what-if” premise. 

“La Cabina” left an impression in Spanish pop culture, so much so that López could reprise his role in a commercial for a telecommunications company more than two decades later. It’s not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, but for aficionados of the horrifying twist, it’s a can’t-miss look at the shocks that can arise out of the most banal moments in life. Sure, you can learn the lesson about keeping an extra pair of glasses for after the nuclear armageddon. But the dangers of making a phone call? “The Twilight Zone” can hardly compete. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…La cabina continues to be no less entertaining when simultaneously becoming more and more weird and shocking… If you see the film for the first time, at the end, you may not be excessively surprised but you’ll be most likely wondering how it’s happened you haven’t seen La cabina before.” – John Moscow, Review Maze

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Atlas Obscura – Surely one of the only short films in history to earn a public monument, the city of Madrid commemorated the 50th anniversary of “La Cabina” by constructing a replica of the title box a stone’s throw away from the original shooting location.

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

41*. THE SERVANT (1963)

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“The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the servant… being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change around into the real and true independence.”–G.W.F. Hegel, “The Master-Slave Dialectic”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Wendy Craig,

PLOT: Hard-drinking playboy and would-be colonialist Tony hires the solicitous Barret as a manservant, despite the fact that his fiancée takes a dislike to the new employee. Barret convinces Tony to hire his sister as a maid, which sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to the master dismissing both servants. Tony’s drinking intensifies, however, and he invites his servant to return to the house; gradually, the roles of master and servant are reversed.

Still from The Servant (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Joseph Losey moved to the UK after receiving a summons to appear before Joseph McCarthy’s House  Un-American Activities committee.
  • The screenplay was written by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, who adapted  Robin Maugham’s 1948 novella. It was the first of three collaborations between Losey and Pinter.
  • In 1999, a panel of movie professionals voted The Servant the 22nd best British film of all time.
  • Dirk Bogarde, a closeted gay man, had played a closeted gay man in 1961’s The Victim, one of the first films to deal openly and sympathetically with homosexuality. His agent (with whom the actor was secretly involved) was nervous about Bogarde taking this role, fearing he might acquire a “homosexual image.”
  • When Losey came down with pneumonia during the shoot, Bogarde stepped in to direct for ten days, with Losey providing instructions via telephone from the hospital.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mirrors, devices which reverse and sometimes warp images, but which also serve to reveal the selves we cannot see. Tony’s townhouse is littered with mirrors on seemingly every wall, and Losey takes advantage of them throughout the film, using mirrors to reflect the underlying truth of a situation. In one shot, Tony and Susan face Barret accusingly. In the convex mirror image, Barret can be seen clearly, standing calmly with a robe and a cigarette, while only the back of Tony’s head is visible, and Susan isn’t there at all. The mirror shows us the relative power and importance of the three characters in the scene more profoundly than the head-on camera shot does.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Upside-down orgy; kissing the servant

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Servant emits the subtlest whiff of dignified strangeness, all emanating from the mysterious Bogarde: an unassuming Trojan horse of malice and perversion without a clear motive or objective other than raw power.

2021 Restoration trailer for The Servant

COMMENTS: Led by a dominating career performance from Dirk Continue reading 41*. THE SERVANT (1963)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE MYSTERIANS (1957)

Chikyû Bôeigun

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DIRECTED BY: Ishirô Honda

FEATURING: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Shirata

PLOT: The Mysterians, a technologically superior force from another world, threaten the people of Earth with destruction unless they are granted access to a small plot of land and intermarriage with the planet’s women.

Still from The Mysterians (1957)

COMMENTS: The Japanese monster movie stands today mostly as a magnificent punchline, a peak in the field of cheesy filmmaking. With men in rubber suits wreaking havoc upon cardboard cities and sober-voiced scientists sagely predicting doom while hordes of citizens flee in terror, they can feel appealing nearly seven decades later specifically because of their amateurism. The home-movie caliber special effects, the hilarious destruction of major metropoli, and at least here in the West, the peculiarly emotive and awkwardly translated dialogue are all part of their charm. And as the sequels and copycats have piled on, that has largely become the raison d’etre for the whole genre. That was supremely silly, we say. Give us more.

But was it silly? An interesting side effect of their continued popularity is the rise of dedicated scholarship that examines the very serious origins of some of these stories. Consider the giant among giants: Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic Gojira, which used a rampaging beast to tell a story of Japan’s psychic fallout from the atomic blasts of World War II, as well as to react to current events in which Japanese sailors were contaminated by exposure to a nuclear test. (Later kaiju, such as Mothra and Gamera, would have similar nuclear-inspired origins.) Yes, it’s a monster movie, but those in the know recognize it for much more.

Someone who absolutely knows the subtext is Ishirô Honda, and he practically triples down on it in The Mysterians, a movie about an occupying force that holds immense power over the occupied, who claims to want little but always seems to take more and more. If you imagine Honda and screenwriter Takeshi Kimura weren’t thinking about the United States, then you’ve been well-distracted by the aliens who look like baggy-suited Power Rangers and the monster who seems to be a blend of Big Bird and a steel-plated baseball umpire. Or you’re an American.

That’s far from the only theme The Mysterians wants to get across. There’s the matter of Ryōichi, the scientist who throws in with the invaders only to realize too late that the purity of science was no match for the corruption of power. He deflects accusations of treason only to regret his folly: “Even science has no value in itself!” he declares in his final message. “It all depends on how it’s used – for good or for evil!” And if science has a lesson to learn, so does the whole world, as a relieved functionary proclaims at the film’s conclusion. “The nations of the world must now stay united, and struggle against unknown forces instead of fighting each other.” Remind me to check on how that’s going.

The messages seem more prominent and more didactic than in Godzilla’s film debut, and that might be because the threat seems a lot less impressive. Even though the stakes have gone from the fate of Tokyo to the fate of the world, the battles themselves feel smaller. After the monster is deployed early in the film, the rest of the Mysterians’ danger is represented by being impervious to attacks, firing lasers, and enacting some of the lamest kidnappings ever filmed. They just don’t deliver shock and awe, no matter their demands or their dominance. That carries over into a painful lack of suspense. With Earth foiled at every turn, you need a really big payoff to buy the home team’s ultimate victory, and you don’t get one. Ultimately, the Earth Defense Force just has to keep working on better weapons until they find one that makes a dent, and that’s exactly what happens. It’s the equivalent of playground banter wherein one kid announces he has a forcefield to protect himself from harm, and the next kid declares that he has an anti-forcefield gun.

There are some genuinely great special effects, such as the dramatic flooding and the melting tanks caused by the Mysterians’ weapons, and the Akira Ifukube score is exciting and propulsive. But overall, The Mysterians just ends up not being that interesting. Honda and the team at Toho had a lot more to say, but this go-around wasn’t a particularly compelling way to say it all. Seems like another reason the monsters had more staying power than the messages.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s solemn and silly, with too many earnest scientific-military discussions, but it pulls out all the stops when unleashing destructive weaponry, melting tanks, bizarre futurist décor, panicking hordes and kicking the baddies off the planet.” – Kim Newman, Empire

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

33*. BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)

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“[It’s in the] contemporary LSD/monster-movie genre. On second thought, I guess there’s no such thing. Let’s just call it a bizarre monster movie.”–Frank Henenlotter, asked to describe the film’s genre in 1988

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rick Hearst, Jennifer Lowry, Gordon MacDonald, voice of John Zacherle

PLOT: Young New Yorker Brian wakes up one morning to find that a small snake-like creature, “Elmer,” has escaped from his neighbor’s apartment and drilled a hole in the back of his head. Elmer secretes a powerful euphoric hallucinogen, which he injects directly into Brian’s brain; the young man is quickly addicted to the rush. But Elmer also requires human brains to function, and plans on using Brian to harvest them.

Still from Brain Damage (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Frank Henenlotter made has debut, Basket Case, in 1981 for $35,000. For seven years he was unable to raise funds to make the kind of follow-up film he wanted, until Cinema Group put up a reported $1.5 million for Brain Damage.
  • John Zacherle (the voice of Elmer/Aylmer) was a noted horror host in Philadelphia and New York City who went by the moniker “the Cool Ghoul.” Henenlotter, a fan who grew up watching Zacherle, convinced him to join the production. Zacherle wasn’t credited because he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and this was a non-union set.
  • Crew members reportedly walked off the set during the “blow job” scene. This bad taste sequence was also cut from early theatrical and television prints to preserve an “R” rating.
  • The movie was partly inspired by Henenlotter’s experiences with giving up cocaine.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: With all of the crazy hallucinations, brain cam footage, and grossout gore scenes, it’s almost easy to lose sight of the strangest image in this movie: the Aylmer itself, a talking cross between a penis and a turd with cartoon eyes.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Blue juice at the synapse; pulsing meatball brains

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The psychedelic trip sequences, intriguingly urbane penile villain, and a general sensibility of depraved unreality elevate this gore-horror into something stranger than the usual VHS exploitation dreck.


Original trailer for Brain Damage

COMMENTS: As an allegory, Brain Damage couldn’t be more obvious—or apt. Indeed, if drug addiction could talk,it would sound just Continue reading 33*. BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)