Tag Archives: Black and White

CAPSULE: SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937)

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DIRECTED BY: William C. McGann

FEATURING: , Allen Jenkins, Marcia Ralston, John Eldredge, Elspeth Dudgeon

PLOT: Two policemen, an artist, a femme fatale, a pair of captains, a socialite, and a housekeeper are all trapped in a lighthouse with the Octopus, a criminal overlord, and an octopus, a mollusk, menacing them as they investigate a mysterious murder.

Still from sh! the octopus (1937)

COMMENTS: Sh! The Octopus has something for everybody. Its inspired mash-up of screwball comedy, mystery, horror, science fiction, and melodrama defies categorization, and isn’t for those who tend toward dismissiveness. When a feature film clocks in at under an hour, can be found streaming for free on YouTube, and has been buried in a sea of Reader Suggested titles, all the warning signs are there. I ignored these signs and committed myself to fifty-four minutes of wild gyrations between tiresome comedy and middling comedy, ultimately witnessing a witch-y performance and a narrative punchline that made a certain technicolor 1939 classic feel derivative.

But first, the story. Irish-American cops Kelly and Dempsey are cruising around off duty when they are informed via dispatch that Kelly (Hugh Herbert), who spends his time in the patrol car popping pills of unknown provenance, is about to become a father. Meanwhile, “marine artist” Paul Morgan has purchased an abandoned lighthouse from the federal government to focus on his paintings—a lighthouse with the aptly named “Captain Hook” as its caretaker. Meanwhile, Clancy, another Irish-American, has been appointed as the police commissioner tasked with bringing down a gang-lord known as “the Octopus”. Meanwhile, at the lighthouse, more and more people assemble as the plot spirals outward wildly, revealing that the FBI, the “Society for Peace”, the proto-CIA, and the proto-INTERPOL are all interested in the plans for a Radium Ray—a weapon so powerful that, as the inventor’s daughter informs us, “whoever controls it would control the world!”

That’s a lot of “meanwhiles,” and a lot of Irish-Americans. And that’s the kind of movie this is: your basic “haunted house” framework with every conceivable plot-graft bolted on to it (probably by some Irish-American workers). I’m a fan of screwball comedy, and so had more patience for what was going on than most would, but I still was wondering what all these gyrations could possibly be in aid of. However, there was a twist at the end that left me chuckling for a good fifteen minutes after the lighthouse exploded. (Whoops; spoiler alert.) Sh! The Octopus is a barely passable movie, to be sure, but it does have that twist. And it’s a concise bit of nonsense for the more stereotypically minded on St. Patrick’s Day.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the weirdest little film made by a studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood.”–Phil Hall, Film Threat

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Winslow attempts to escape his past and earn good money tending a remote lighthouse for a month under ex-sea captain Thomas Wake; things get desperate when they are not relieved on schedule.

Srill from The Lighthouse (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What begins as “standard” art-horror keeps shoveling on the madness until you can’t think it can go any farther. It does, and ends on a Promethean note that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a sharper-imaged Begotten.

COMMENTS: I sat too far to the front to be able to tell you if anyone walked out of the movie (often a good sign for us), but I can tell you that it passed the next best test: right after it ended, a viewer queried loudly, “What the fuck was that?” I have to admit that that is a fair question. I kept alternating my “Candidate/Capsule” toggle throughout the movie, right up until the soggy, sickly, climax when two compelling things occurred. The first thing: watching Robert Pattinson burn away any mainstream reputation he might have had from his Twilight movies. The second thing: I could not have hoped for a better, more mind-popping final shot.

The first word of dialogue isn’t one, really. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), recently arrived to as remote an island as possible, makes a muffled grunt when entering his quarters. At the far end of the room, his boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), finishes urinating into a chamber pot and pointedly passes gas before beginning to hum. Ephraim, his environment established and his company defined, does his lowly duties, forever pining to tend the beacon that Thomas jealously guards. A one-eyed seagull torments the young man, until one day he responds to its attack by smashing it thoroughly to death against a cistern. This forgivable outburst is the catalyst for a storm that smashes against the island, changing Ephraim’s circumstances from mundane and miserable to forlorn and febrile.

Its frame ratio, as far as I was able to observe, is one-to-one1, a presentation typically found only in very old movies. The motion of characters from one corner to the opposite diagonal of the screen just doesn’t have the same “punch” when there’s a standard panorama to cross, and the screen’s confines heighten the cramped nature of the setting. The lighting, too, hearkens back to cinema’s early days. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century on the edge of a watery nowhere, and the light comes only from occasional, well-diffused sunlight and dim candles. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, illuminated by a flickering light against the black room, was the stuff of comic nightmares. (His dialogue, the credits admit, is largely taken from Herman Melville, and every soliloquy is both bombastic and believable.)

Eggers drives the narrative in the one direction it can go—but while so doing brings in every horrible bit of natural humanity (Aleksey German crossed my mind on many occasions), grappling his characters to the edge before giving them a final shove into the roiling abyss. Knowing Dafoe’s filmography, I knew he had the chops; Pattinson, I have now seen, can match him. Dafoe is credited first, but this is Pattinson’s breakout-crazy performance (so here’s hoping he wanted one). Ephraim explodes in his final rant, its power almost a palpable force in the cinema, silencing the small crowd of hipsters. When the young man posed the question mentioned in the first paragraph, he was speaking for every viewer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stark, moody, surreal and prolonged descent into seaside madness that will surely not be for everyone.”–Lindsey Barr, Associated Press (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SEX MADNESS REVEALED (2018)

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DIRECTED BY:  Tim Kirk

FEATURINGPatton Oswalt,

PLOT: The viewer watches the old exploitation roadshow feature Sex Madness (1938), synced to a podcast where the “Film Dick” interviews the director’s grandson and uncovers shocking secrets about the production.

Still from Sex Madness Revealed (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a clever idea with a mildly weird twist, but the execution doesn’t live up to the premise’s promise.

COMMENTS: In the early 90s, a troupe of comedians from the Midwest revolutionized bad-movie watching with “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which you might recognize as that show where silhouettes at the bottom of the screen toss out wisecracks while a giant monster or juvenile delinquent movie unspools in real time. Like Tim Kirk’s previous experiment, Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (2015), Sex Madness Revealed takes that conceit to the next level: instead of making a series of one-off jokes at the expense of the film, it invents an entire new fictional narrative and overlays it onto the original. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, Revealed proposes that the base movie, the 1930s VD scare film Sex Madness, is actually a coded message from a secret society. It’s a parody of the way certain paranoid fans 1 believe movies work: directors slide secret messages into their work to signal Illuminati connections, or to slyly confess that they faked the moon landing, or whatever. This cinematic conspiracy theme explains why Room 237s signed on as producer.

Sex Madness itself is an oddity, a nearly plotless pastiche of padding, stock footage, subdued salaciousness (an as-titillating-as-possible-at-the-time lesbian seduction), and hypocritical moral shock (grotesque shots of syphilis chancres, both faked and real). The lack of a real plot in Sex Madness leaves the commentators room to speculate and to invent a story that’s more interesting than the one playing out onscreen. The task the writers give themselves is a tough one, and although it is impressive that they are able to craft a meta-narrative that holds water, the script often strains mightily. One character’s passing resemblance to launches a major portion of the plot. Sometimes, the writers inspirations are just silly and don’t come across: for example, a mysterious sound artifact leads to speculation that the actors’ performances are being controlled by the offscreen director via electrical shocks. Some minor observations approach brilliance, however: once the grandson explains that grandfather selected the wood grain in one of the film’s drab office sets for its subliminal vaginal connotations, you’ll never be able to see the room any other way.

The plot is ultimately merely serviceable, and so are the performances. Oswalt and Zabrecky recorded their lines in one day, and it sounds like it. That’s not to say they are bad: they both deliver professional readings. But they don’t have time to dive deeply into their characters to create something more than a competent caricature. As the gung ho but arrogant podcast host, Oswalt is OK, but his character isn’t completely convincing; his exhaustive command of minutiae from the dregs of exploitation cinema (e.g., instant recall of a minor exploitation actresses’ high school mascot) is a little much, even for a bad film nerd. As the eccentric grandson delivering shocking revelations, Zabrecky gives a laid-back but melodramatically sinister performance that also fails to transcend the workmanlike. If you’re drawn to this type of cinema and this type of narrative experiment, the end result is something you might enjoy listening to once; but it’s not a movie with heavy replay value. Which is a shame, since Sex Madness Revealed is currently only available on physical media, whereas it would be a fine choice for a on-demand rental one evening. (If you’re a legitimate fan of Sex Madness itself, by all means buy this disc—and may God have mercy on your soul.)

As usual, Kino Lorber treats even its nichiest releases with respect. Extras on the Sex Madness Revealed DVD or Blu-ray include the option to watch the original version of the film with no commentary track, or to listen to a real commentary track from co-writers Tim Kirk and Patrick Cooper overlaid on top of Oswalt and Zabrecky’s fake commentary track. There’s also the trailer for Kirk’s Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein and a short installment of Rob Zabrecky’s comedy seance series, “Other Side with Zabrecky,” where comedian Will Forte asks to speak to the spirit of . That last one is pretty weird; and, personally, I enjoyed it more than the feature film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the ‘commentary’ is simply not very funny, and in fact may strike some as downright weird.”–Jeffrey Kaufman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)

Erekutorikku doragon 80000V

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Sogo Ishii [AKA Gakuryû Ishii]

FEATURING: , , voice of Masakatsu Funaki

PLOT: A boy who survives electrocution while climbing an electrical tower grows up to be “Dragon Eye Morrison,” a human battery and “reptile investigator” who tracks missing lizards and who can only control his violent impulses by playing his electric guitar. Meanwhile, “Thunderbolt Buddha,” a half-man, half-metal being who was also struck by lightning as a child, hears of our hero, and wants to test his electrical superpowers against his counterpart’s. The villainous Buddha provokes a high voltage showdown with Morrison on a Tokyo rooftop.

Still from Electric Dragon 80000V

BACKGROUND:

  • Sogo Ishii was an established director whose work was influenced by punk music and style. He was an influential figure for Japanese underground filmmakers, but his work is seldom seen outside of his homeland.
  • Industrial/noise band MACH-1.67, an occasional ensemble that included director Ishii and star Asano, provided the music. They subsequently performed concerts with this film playing in the background.
  • Composer Hiroyuki Onogawa said he had never written rock music nor worked much with the electric guitar before this project.
  • The movie was a cult success in Japan, running to packed houses in one theater for two months. Plans for a Part 2 were discussed, but never materialized.
  • Reports suggest that the film was shot in three days (other accounts say three weeks, and obviously post-production took much, much longer) and largely improvised.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’re going to go with the visage of the movie’s villain, a half-man, half-statue. (Beyond the fact that he was struck by lightning as a child, his alloyed origins are never explained.)

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Thunderbolt Buddha, TV repairman; pre-rage noise solo

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A team of Japanese industrial punks decide to made a surrealistic black and white superhero noise musical. If this sounds awesome to you, we won’t argue.

Original trailer for Electric Dragon 80000V

COMMENTS: We can dispense with any sort of search for deep Continue reading 4*. ELECTRIC DRAGON 80000 V (2001)