Tag Archives: “Based on a True Story”

CAPSULE: LORDS OF CHAOS (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jonas Åkerlund

FEATURING: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Jon Øigarden, Valter Skarsgård

PLOT: The founder of True Norwegian Black Metal, Euronymous, narrates his rise and fall from beyond the grave in a tale of music, church burning, metal, and marketing.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lords of Chaos is a well-crafted biopic/docudrama about some very weird people. Graphic suicide and murder notwithstanding, this is an eminently mainstream, straightforward piece of high-quality cinema. Fans of True Norwegian Black Metal will want to upgrade this from a “recommended” to a “” rating.

COMMENTS: Norway: the land of Ski Queen cheese, smiling people in bright sweaters, and True Norwegian Black Metal. For the last of those three things, you can thank “Euronymous” (née Øystein Aarseth), founder of the band Mayhem and, if Lords of Chaos is to be believed, something of a marketing genius. Jonas Åkerlund, no stranger to the metal scene of the late ’80s, brings the dramatic tale of Euronymous’ journey from upper-middle-class rocker bad-boy to tragic murder victim to an English-speaking audience in this docudrama. With a sure touch and an unlikely sense of humor, Åkerlund spins a formidable yarn about some troubled lads spiraling out of control.

From his omnipotent afterlife perch, Øystein (Rory Culkin) narrates his early roots—appropriately subterranean in his parents’ basement. Graduating quickly from the status of inept musicians riding around in their parents Volvos, the metal group Mayhem enjoys a series of lucky breaks accompanied by implied Faustian bargains. They find a frontman, Death (an eerie Jack Kilmer), who rockets them to sub-fame before blasting his brains out. Death’s replacement is even darker: an impressionable, awkward young man named Christian (Emory Cohen), who changes his name to Varg after he buys into the whole death-cult-Satanist-nihilist shtick that Øystein has fabricated. Varg starts burning down churches, and the other band members’ moral fabric disintegrates as a horrible contest of one-upmanship rips them apart. As his vision of commercial glory begins to unravel, Øystein is forced to come to terms with the beast he’s created.

While many films directed by Music Video People obviously show their signature markings, Jonas Åkerlund stays his hand stylistically. His story is about the people behind the image, not a love letter to the presumed madness and evil of True Norwegian Black Metal. On the occasions that he does indulge in his fast-dreamy editing, the effect is that much more striking: Øystein’s recurring daydreams/nightmares of traveling through the woods, looking for his first friend and leading man are unsettling and touching. The music, most of it performed by the (non-Norwegian, non-metal) band Sigur Rós, alternately haunts and pummels. And the acting transforms these aspiring metal caricatures into realistic portraits of young outcasts.

Which brings me to Rory Culkin. Yes, he is from the same brood as the famous (to some of us older types) Macaulay Culkin, but in Lords of Chaos he seems to be channeling a young (carried in no small part by his eyes and his near-constant, “What the Hell is wrong with you people?” tone of voice). Culkin carries this picture. His joyful cynicism is underscored as his post-death montage wraps up, “No. Fuck. Stop this sentimental shit.” Though he may call himself “Euronymous”, Øystein remains Øystein: a cheeky, ambitious nerd with a flair for publicity. Lords of Chaos rubs elbows with the countless musical biopics that have streamed forth from the movie industry since time immemorial. It’s one of the few, though, to capture melodrama, mundanity, and hilarity so capably and with such strong disregard for nostalgia.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite Åkerlund’s refusal to lionize these immature kids, ‘Lords of Chaos’ is tremendous fun. Caveat: one must be able to handle severed pig heads, cat torture, and casual Nazism.” –Amy Nicholson, Variety

362. THE DEVILS (1971)

“There was no better director to learn from. He would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence.”–Derek Jarman on Ken Russell

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin

PLOT: Father Urbain Grandier is the charismatic spiritual and political leader of the independent city of Loudun; Cardinal Richelieu wants him replaced because he refuses to allow the city’s walls to be torn down. Sister Jeanne, Mother Superior of the town’s convent, is tormented by sexual dreams about Grandier. When Sister Jeanne confesses her fantasies to a priest, Richelieu’s men hatch a plot to frame Grandier as a warlock, and the entire convent is whipped into mass hysteria, becoming convinced they are possessed by devils.

Still from The Devils (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Father Grandier and Sister Jeanne, among many other characters in the film, were real people. Grandier was burnt at the stake in 1634 on accusations of practicing witchcraft.
  • The Devils was based on John Whiting’s play “The Devils of Loudun,” which itself was based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same title.
  • Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut ran 117 minutes, after the British censors removed an infamous 4-minute sequence known as “the rape of Christ.” The U.S. distributor cut an additional three to six minutes of sex and blasphemy out so that the film could be released with an “R” rating in the States, and that release became the standard version and the only one released on VHS. The longer director’s cut was not seen until 2004, thanks to a restoration effort led by . Russell’s director’s cut has never been issued on home video; the X-rated theatrical cut is the most complete version currently available. Portions of the “rape of Christ” scene are preserved in a BBC documentary called “Hell on Earth” (included on the BFI DVD).
  • A young designed the sets. This was his first feature credit.
  • The Devils is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • The contemporary arguments over the film became so heated that Russell himself attacked critic Alexander Walker on live television, hitting him on the head with a copy of his negative review.
  • Warner Brothers has steadfastly refused to release the movie on DVD, but they did eventually sublicense it to the British Film Institute for overseas release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Even with the “rape of Christ” scene excised, what sticks out in The Devils are the scenes of possessed nuns, some with shaved heads, whipping off their habits and cavorting in the nude, writhing, self-flagellating, jerking off votive candles, and waggling their tongues in an obscene performance. For a single, and singular, image that encapsulates the themes and shock level of The Devils, however, try the vision of Vanessa Redgrave seductively licking at the wound in Oliver Reed’s side when she imagines him as Christ descended from the cross to ravage her.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crocodile parry; Christ licking; John Lennon, exorcist

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nobody, but nobody, shoots a nun orgy like Ken Russell. Aside from a dream sequence or two, The Devils is a historically accurate account of a real-life medieval witch hunt—but Russell emphasizes only the oddest and most perverse details, so that the movie itself becomes as hysterical and overwrought as the frenzy it condemns. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.


Original U.S. release trailer for The Devils

COMMENTS: Viewed from a great distance, The Devils is a classical Continue reading 362. THE DEVILS (1971)

CAPSULE: THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974)

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Walter Ladengast, Willy Semmelrogge

PLOT: After nearly two decades growing up in a basement cell, Kaspar Hauser is abandoned in the town square of a nearby village. Illiterate and knowing virtually no words, the man is adopted by the townsfolk, first by the town jailer and then by a local professor who finds him on display at a fair. As his awareness of this new world grows, Kaspar becomes increasingly disenchanted with his surroundings.

Still from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the story is based on an historical oddity that morphed into something of a legend, the movie structure, flow, and presentation are conventional. The tragedy of Kaspar Hauser is rather weird, but Herzog tells his tale through traditional storytelling methods.

COMMENTS: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser proves that the young Werner Herzog had the golden touch. It could be argued he single-handedly launched the volatile to art-house superstardom with the success of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Right on that movie’s heels, he cooked up a heartwarming tragedy for the then-very-unknown street performer, Bruno S. In the titular role in  Kaspar Hauser, Herzog directs the non-actor in a performance that is moving, amusing, and, most impressively, believable.

Herzog took the historical but semi-legendary story of Kaspar Hauser at face value. The movie begins, as with so many Herzog pictures, with shots of mesh-enveloped nature. As in Aguirre, an informative title card is presented to provide the viewer with background—in this case, ironically, to introduce him to the protagonist’s lack of background. Having spent all his formative years from birth locked in a dimly lit cellar, with only one man’s company (limited to feeding time and perhaps cleanings), Kaspar Hauser has no basis for experience other than four walls, a straw covered floor, bread, water, and a wheeled toy horse. For unknowable reasons, one day the captor releases Kaspar and then ditches him, standing in a daze with a letter in hand, in the center of a prosperous 19th century German town.

The truly blank slate of Kaspar allows Herzog to force the audience to observe mankind from the character’s detached perspective. The town is bewildered by Kaspar’s presence and lack of interactivity. The authorities, one of whom is an excitable clerk keen on getting everything recorded in his reports, are officious, slightly suspicious, but ultimately kind. The children of the jail keeper teach Kaspar all they can. When the town government are irked at the stranger, they force him to act as one of the “Four Riddles of the Spheres at a town fair. Kaspar engineers an escape for himself and the three other “riddles,” only to be found later in an apiary by a kindly professor. Things do get better for Kaspar, but also worse.

The movie is sprinkled with amusing moments, largely observational oddities from the unworldly Kaspar, but it is ultimately a tragedy. Throughout, Herzog’s camera digresses into gossamer fields, dunes, and water. These signature shots ably convey Kaspar’s sense of wonder, but also his detachment from the world in which he finds himself. Near the beginning, he lightly sobs to the jail keeper’s wife,  “Mother, I am so far from everything”; later, he remarks to the professor, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall.” At a sort of “coming out” party put on for a visiting prat of a nobleman, he glibly tells the assembled bourgeois gawkers that life was better for him in his cell.

Kaspar Hauser has many moments of quiet beauty to behold, and Herzog further demonstrates his mastery of his craft with this addition to his oeuvre. The reality it creates is as wondrous and sad as the reality Kaspar experiences when he finally gains his bearings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In Herzog the line between fact and fiction is a shifting one. He cares not for accuracy but for effect, for a transcendent ecstasy… The last thing Herzog is interested in is ‘solving’ this lonely man’s mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

ANGST (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Gerald Kargl

FEATURING: Erwin Leder, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Silvia Rabenreither

PLOT: Immediately after his release from prison for attempted murder, a would-be serial killer fulfills his desires when he happens upon an isolated villa in the German countryside inhabited by a family of three.

Still from Angst (1983)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: By grounding the viewer so thoroughly and painfully within the borderline mundanity of the killer’s violence, Gerald Kargl fuses the horrific with the blasé and leaves us shocked at the permeating numbness. Over the course of a grueling day of murder—with all the blood, strangulation, and heavy lifting which that entails—we are left as enervated as the main character. Nonetheless, he charges forward from setback to bloody setback: menaced by children in yellow rain coats, showing off the contents of his car trunk to patrons of a nearby café, and finally escaping in coattails.

COMMENTS: Imagine yourself trapped in one spot. You cannot move your gaze, and the world wrenches around you as it seems you’re traveling — to a prison, a coffee lounge, a taxi, and finally, a desolate house. While trapped, you hear the plinking of water drops, the rattling of keys, and the soft voice of someone craving your trust and sympathy—someone who talks of little other than lust for murder, destruction, and revenge. Sitting through Angst from beginning to end is a challenge. Though we are only briefly locked in this man’s world, we see nothing but him and his horrible deeds, and hear nothing but his wretched thoughts, from start to finish.

Angst is more unrelenting in its focus than any serial-killer biopic I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Once we meet the film’s antihero (an emaciated, menacing Erwin Leder), the camera virtually never leaves him; those few times when it does, it focuses on nearby people—potential victims—who eyeball the camera suspiciously, or are being visually dissected as the killer contemplates what he may or may not do to them. The director is trying to break into this man’s mind. The killer is allowed a nearly uninterrupted inner monologue, so that he might explain himself to the viewer. There are hovering high-angles and poking low-angles as the camera attempts to capture him in a way that makes sense. Indeed, there are even long stretches with the camera fixed on him as he flees or pursues, never shifting in its view of his face or body as the world gyrates around him. The screen pulses and frames skip, as if the lens is trying to force itself through to enter the psychopath’s heart. It is all to no avail, as this is a man who makes sense only to himself.

Shot on a tiny budget, Angst is the somewhat true-to-life story of the murders committed by Austrian serial killer Werner Kniesek. Gerald Kargl primarily made commercials before writing and directing this movie (his one and only feature length film). The cinematographer, Zbigniew Rybczynski, cut his teeth shooting short films for various Eastern European luminaries (note: the same year he shot Angst, he won an Oscar for Best Short Film for “Tango”; shortly afterwards he began a prolific career in the music video biz). When this pair teamed up with composer Klaus Schulze (of Tangerine Dream fame), their combined efforts culminated in something disturbing, cutting edge, and incredibly commercially unviable. Even today Angst feels unsettlingly fresh, approaching the serial killer genre in a manner that not only refuses to glamorize its subject, but also refuses to feign understanding. In the beginning, we know little of this man’s life and desires, but even after spending an exhausting day with him, we are left with no real comprehension of his motives.

DVD DETAILS: Cult Epics has once again given a crackerjack treatment to their latest release. The movie looks almost new, with a crystal clear image throughout. The soundtrack and score are also given their due, with the low-key effects, muffled screams, and furtive words heard softly, but clearly. There are myriad interviews, trailers, and a commentary track. The real gem herein, however, is the forty-page booklet that not only has a number of interesting essays about the movie, but also images and (for the less fluent in German among us) translations of newspaper clippings about the Kniesek murders. This is a must-buy for any fan of the serial killer genre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…disturbing, strangely undervalued and still unflinching shocker… a realistic but oddly heightened experience.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

 

 

210. HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

“We realized why Debora and I have such extraordinary telepathy, and why people treat us and look at us the way they do. It is because we are mad—we are both stark raving mad!”–Pauline Parker, diary entry

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Melanie Lynskey, , Sarah Peirse

PLOT: Pauline, a socially awkward young teen, finds a friend in Juliet, a new arrival at her girls’ school in 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand. Juliet is witty and has traveled the world, and together she and Pauline invent a rich epic about the royal family of the fictional kingdom Borovnia, complete with stories chronicling the dynasty’s adventures and clay figurines Juliet molds to represent the main characters. As their relationship grows closer and develops a sexual component, the girls shut out the rest of the world, living out a fantasy of shared hallucinations and referring to each other by invented names, until their parents grow concerned and try to separate them.

Still from Heavenly Creatures (1994)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a real-life murder that shocked New Zealand in the 1950s. The film’s voiceovers are direct quotes from Pauline Parker’s diaries.
  • After being released from prison, Juliet Hulme became a successful writer of mysteries working under her new name, Anne Perry. She publicly revealed her identity as Heavenly Creatures was being produced. Pauline Parker did not wish to be found, but was later discovered working with handicapped children.
  • After the film was released Perry stated that the two girls had never had a lesbian relationship, as had been commonly supposed, although this denial was not public information when Heavenly Creatures‘ script was written. Pauline’s diary entries clearly hinted at a sexual relationship, but these could have been a young girl’s confused fantasies.
  • Heavenly Creatures was a totally unexpected arthouse outing from New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose previous works had all been outrageous exploitation films: the gory Bad Taste, the transgressive puppet show Meet the Feebles, and the zombie comedy Dead-Alive [AKA Brain Dead].
  • Nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (where it lost, understandably, to Pulp Fiction).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The plasticine Borovnians, particularly the homicidal Diello, who decapitates a homophobic psychiatrist, among his other crimes.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Fourth World; deflowering hallucination; hideous Orson Welles.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Adolescent melodrama blossoms into mature tragedy in the delirious Heavenly Creatures. Odd, overdramatic lighting schemes and a flighty camera track two young girls’ trajectory from obsessive daydreaming to outright madness. Peter Jackson’s stunning, surreal realizations of the girls’ fantasies about celebrity heartthrobs and a kingdom of killers sculpted from clay put the film over the top.


Trailer for heavenly Creatures

COMMENTS: In 1994, if you imagined Peter Jackson directing a Continue reading 210. HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

CAPSULE: THE BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Blair Erickson

FEATURING: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian

PLOT: An investigative journalist searches for a friend who disappeared after taking an experimental hallucinogenic drug.

Still from The Banshee Chapter (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has the a solid collection of paranoid/paranormal/psychedelic elements, but it doesn’t push them far enough, ending up as little more than Jacob’s Ladder lite.

COMMENTS: With a plot hinging on the CIA’s MKUltra mind control experiments and bits of fringe lore about the endogenous hallucinogen DMT, “numbers stations,” and references thrown in for seasoning, The Banshee Chapter might have been scripted by paranoid paranormal AM radio host Art Bell. The movie’s style is as all-over-the-place as the conspiratorial plot; journalist Anne Roland (Winter) begins narrating the story as a documentary, and the movie incorporates (sometimes out-of-context) actual newsreels together with scripted “found footage” scenes of James Hirsch (McMilian) experimenting with the rare drug at the center of the story. As the tale progresses the documentary conceit is ditched in favor of a typical third-person omniscient view of proceedings (although the shaky handheld camera continues to remind us of the movie’s supposed vérité origins). This lack of consistency isn’t a huge issue; if you like the movie, you might think that it contributes to its ragtag, homemade charm. The bigger problem is that, despite having so much going on, Banshee Chapter frequently lapses in talkiness and confusion. Without much of a budget for effects or locations, plot points are often given through speculative dialogue. And even when things happen, it’s not always made clear why Anne is following up certain clues: I couldn’t figure out exactly what led her to follow up on the shortwave radio broadcasts, for example, or what her plan was once she finally tracked down a source of the drug. Further, the horror of the story comes more from sudden screams and pale faces popping into frame than creeping dread and paranoia: the main effect of the experimental drug seems to be to induce jump scares, and the movie’s climax is a sprint through a spookhouse. The one really good idea that the screenplay implements is the inclusion of -inspired novelist Thomas Blackburn (Levine) as a key character. Levine plays Thompson/Blackburn with laid-back, boozy seediness, as opposed to the amped-up comic caricatures and adopted in portraying the cult novelist. It’s a lot of fun to see this character out of his comfort zone, tromping through the dark desert in an “X-Files” scenario. If you have a passion either for paranormal culture or for anything Thompson-related, Banshee Chapter may be worthwhile; for those without a particular interest in these subject, however, it’s not a wild enough ride to justify buying a ticket.

Banshee Chapter is the first feature from director/co-writer Blair Erickson. Alt-Spock Zachary Quinto counts among the film’s numerous producers. After a small but critically successful festival run, the film was released on VOD in December of 2013, and will see a limited theatrical release in January 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It certainly works as a gonzo exposé of some of the twentieth century’s madder moments – but perhaps more importantly, this psychotropic remapping of history never forgets to be proper jump-out-of-your-seat scary.”–Anton Bitel, Grolsch Film Works

124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)

“When was the last time a gynecologist was in a movie, even as a figure of fun? There’s something taboo there; something strange and difficult.”–David Cronenberg

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING:

PLOT: Elliot and Beverly Mantle are brilliant twin gynecologists, specializing in fertility, with a client base of rich women. Elliot, the more outgoing of the pair, will seduce a client, and then Beverly will also romance her, pretending to be his brother. The twins delicately balanced psychological co-dependency is disturbed when Beverly falls in love with one of their conquests, a pill-popping actress with a deformed uterus.

Still from Dead Ringers

BACKGROUND:

  • Dead Ringers is loosely based on a a real-life case involving twin gynecologists. Their story was fictionalized and turned into a best-selling novel (“Twins“) by Bari Wood and Jackie Geasland, which became the basis for the screenplay by Cronenberg and Norman Snider.
  • William Hurt and Robert De Niro each passed on the roles of the Mantle twins.
  • Irons’ performance as twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle nabbed him Best Actor awards from the New York and Chicago film critics associations and a runner-up prize from the LA film critics; but the project was too strange to be endorsed by the Academy Awards, which procrastinated until the following year to recognize the actor for his role as accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (Irons credits Dead Ringers for an “assist” in nabbing him that statuette).
  • Worried that it might not be weird enough, we initially declined to place Dead Ringers on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies—but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won its section in our third readers choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The blood-red scrubs narrowly beat out the bizarrely barbed “instruments for working on mutant women” as the movie’s most disturbing medical prop—largely because the twins were presumably sane and sober when they chose this surgical garb. Both props appear together onscreen in a scene where Beverly, high on downers, makes a shambles of the operating room, even snatching off the patient’s gas mask to take a whiff of anesthetic himself.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When the plot synopsis contains the words “twin gynecologists,” you know you’ll be traveling into territory off the beaten path. When it’s David Cronenberg directing a story about twin gynecologists, you can expect something even further out there. While Dead Ringers is a drama, it’s a drama for horror movie fans, one that’s ultimately creepy and unnerving enough to rise to the level of “weird.”


Original trailer for Dead Ringers

COMMENTS: However unlikely Cronenberg’s tale of obsession, drug abuse, and gynecology

Continue reading 124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)