Tag Archives: Counterculture

CAPSULE: GAS-S-S-S (1970)

AKA Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bob Corff, Elaine Giftos, , Cindy Williams, , (as Tally Coppola)

PLOT: After an experimental gas kills everyone over the age of twenty five, young lovers make their way across the desert looking for a hippie Shangri-La in New Mexico.

Still from Gas-s-s-s (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: More zany than strange, Gas-s-s-s lacks bite as satire and doesn’t go far enough with its crazy to earn a place among the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Unlike monster movies, which could be churned out according to a reliable formula, comedy was always an iffy proposition for Roger Corman. When he had a dark, focused script like Little Shop of Horrors, he could produce a classic; but when the screenplay indulged in budget wackiness, as with Creature from the Haunted Sea, the results ranged from tedious to tolerable. Gas-s-s-s falls into the latter category; it’s not actually very funny, but it moves so fast and ranges so wide that it keeps your attention despite the fact that none of the individual gags land.

An appealing young cast (without the usual Corman regulars) helps. It’s not a star-making turn for either, but Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos do well enough as the central couple, he a puckish hippie and she the liberated love child. In his first major speaking role, Ben Vereen is a lot of fun as an ex-Black Panther, and future “Shirley” Cindy Williams (also in her first big part) wrings most of the film’s legitimate giggles from her character, a perpetually pregnant ingenue obsessed with 1960s rock and roll. Working with the legendary Corman, even in a bad picture, was a feather in any young actor’s cap, and Gas-s-s-s is cool credit for Talia Shire and future cult icon Bud Cort, even though both of their characters are underdeveloped and generic. Together, this sextet makes its way across a post-adult landscape where the marauders are organized as football teams (complete with rape-and-pillage pep rallies) and the Hell’s Angels have civilized themselves and taken over an abandoned country club. also rides around on a motorcycle dispensing advice and commentary. The jokes—stuff like calling out the names of cowboy actors instead of firing bullets during a shootout— are too goofy to be called absurdist; the film is almost childlike, as if the survivors are just kids pretending that the world has ended one afternoon. The result is like what might have happened if Mel Brooks had taken the script for The Bed Sitting Room, removed the dark nuclear gags, and filmed the results cheaply and quickly on an off day. I’ll resist the temptation to say Gas-s-s-s stinks; it’s a breezy wisp of a satire.

Gas-s-s-s was the last film in Roger Corman’s groovy “psychedelic” period, which began with Wild Angels and peaked with The Trip. It was also Corman’s final picture for American International Studios; he didn’t have final cut and was upset at the way the picture was edited, including the decision to cut certain scenes involving his God, who spoke with a stereotypical Jewish accent. Corman formed New World Pictures soon after and rarely directed again, serving almost exclusively as producer. Gas-s-s-s was paired on DVD in separate double feature sets with either Corman’s The Trip or the thematically similar Wild in the Streets. In October 2016 Olive released it as a standalone Blu-ray with no special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not a good pic by any means (in fact it’s a terrible plotless ramble of an idiotic film), but it’s probably worth a look for certain curious viewers because it’s so raw, audacious, bizarre and diverting.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (DVD)

CAPSULE: CANDY (1968)

DIRECTED BY:  Christian Marquand

FEATURING: , John Astin, , , , , , Walter Matthau, Charles Aznavour

PLOT: A nubile girl separated from her father wanders the U.S. meeting a poet, gardener, general, doctor, guru, and more, learning that men only want one thing from her.

Still from Candy (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ah, the late 1960s all-star wacky counter-culture cash-in flop. I have a personal affection for this suspect subgenre, which includes Casino Royale and Myra Breckinridge among other campy disasters. The whole mini-movement was inspired equally by “Laugh-In,” screenwriters with LSD connections, and Hollywood execs’ hopes of wringing the spare cash that hadn’t been blown on grass from out of hippies’ pockets. Sadly, as the number of available remaining slots on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies grows ever smaller, we have to be ever more selective, and Candy has neither the balls-to-the-walls weirdness nor the cinematic competence to challenge for a spot among the very strangest films. Having the even more stunning and misconceived Skidoo on the List to represent this movement takes some of the sting out of reluctantly passing on this wild and wooly folly.

COMMENTS: , fresh off an Oscar for The Graduate, wrote Candy‘s script. Douglas Trumbull (the man responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s “cosmic gate” scenes) did the opening and closing effects. The Byrds, Steppenwolf and Dave Grusin appear on the impressive soundtrack. With that lineup of talent, along with a cast sporting multiple Oscar winners, it’s a shock how awful Candy can be at times. The blame can go to none other than director Christian Marquand (a successful French actor), whose second and final turn at the helm of a major motion picture was this financial shipwreck. Fortunately, at its best (er, worst), Candy is laughably awful, with enough “WTF?” moments (both intentional and unintentional) to keep your eyes glues to the tube.

The plot is a series of nearly-satirical vignettes in which a cross-section of American manhood attempts to grope, seduce, and violate the naïve Candy, who only wants to find her missing father. It is, as the kids today say, kind of rapey; but the menaces the nubile Ewa Auin faces are so silly and absurd that it’s hard to take offense. Candy appears confused rather than frightened by the men’s advances, and whenever someone does score, she enjoys it, in the free love spirit of the times. Her molesters are, in turn, a drunken poet (Burton, as a teen idol version of Dylan Thomas); a Mexican gardener (Ringo Starr, who makes look like a Guadalajara native by comparison); an air force commander (Walter Matthau); her father’s twin brother; two medical professionals (Coburn and Huston); an underground filmmaker; a hunchback (Azvanour); a self-appointed guru traveling the country in a big rig (Brando); and a mysterious cloaked figure. Among the male cast, opinions are divided on who comes off best and worst, but even if their performances are halfway decent (Coburn), the actor’s star is tarnished just by appearing in this mess.

If you’re looking for weird bits beyond the spectacle of big names embarrassing themselves, we only need to point to the opening and closing, which imply that Candy is some sort of star child sex messiah. Then there’s the scene in a glass-bottomed limousine, shot from below; a drunken Burton making love to a mannequin; a wall-scaling hunchback; and every moment of Brando’s politically incorrect brownface performance as an Indian guru who teaches Candy both levitation and the advanced spine-warping version of the Kama Sutra. Individually, some of the sequences work, but the movie never gets a comic rhythm going, and even the horrible acting rarely elicits a chuckle. It does, however, get weirder as it goes on, coming to resemble a softcore “Alice in Wonderland” more than its original inspiration, Voltaire’s “Candide.” It’s one of those fabulous extravagances that could only have emerged out from behind of a cloud of smoke in the psychedelic era.

The eclectic cast and crew of the film adaptation fits Candy’s curious history. It started life in 1958 as a satirical pornographic novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, which was originally banned but became a succès de scandale when it was republished in the 1960s. “Candy” helped launch Southern’s career: he went on to write or contribute to screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, Easy Rider, and the adaptation of his own novel The Magic Christian. (Reportedly, Southern was not a fan of this 1968 adaptation). Candy was remade twice in 1978 (without authorization, with just enough changes to avoid lawsuits), as dueling hardcore sex films: The Erotic Adventures of Candy and Pretty Peaches. Pretty Peaches, at least, was quite accomplished for an adult film, with bubbleheaded Desiree Cousteau arguably outperforming debuting Ewa Aulin, and has probably been seen far more often than this official studio-backed adaptation. Long neglected, in 2016 Kino Lorber re-released Candy on DVD and Blu-ray, with interviews with Buck Henry and film critic Kim Morgan (‘s wife) among the extras.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy, candy colored comedy with sci-fi and fantastic overtones, complete with a mindblowing cosmic finale. There really hasn’t been another movie quite like it, and for those who can handle cinematic head trips laced with chuckles and gorgeous visuals, this Candy is dandy indeed.”–Mondo Digital (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “kengo,” who rhapsodized “Cheesy sleazy patchy fun, with a bit of hit and miss satire and no discernible plot, but it does have McPhisto! – Richard Burton at his best. Hollywood was good in the sixties.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: WILD IN THE STREETS (1968)

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.” – Jerry Rubin

DIRECTED BY: Barry Shear

FEATURING: Christopher Jones, Hal Holbrook, , Diane Varsi, Ed Begley

PLOT: A rock star parlays his immense popularity and the ascendant power of the youth vote into the Presidency, which he then uses to marginalize the country’s adults, banishing them to concentration camps and dosing them with LSD.

Still from Wild in the Streets (1968)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  A true document of its time, Wild in the Streets takes its premise of a counterculture gone mad with power to its outrageous extreme. Viewed half-a-century later, the sheer 60s-ness of the thing makes it feel strange and even absurd. But strip away the hippie affectations and what remains is a straightforward sociological horror film, revealing the dangers of demagoguery that lurk in every generation.

COMMENTSWild in the Streets is the tale of a temperamental, rich celebrity with parental issues and no political experience who capitalizes on the support of an angry and marginalized electorate, co-opts a group of venal, self-interested politicians who think they can control him, and proceeds to undermine the very core of American democracy for his own corrupt ends. Any similarities to current events are entirely coincidental, of course.

If the plot of Wild in the Streets seems to echo today’s tango with a tangerine-tinted tyrant, rest assured it’s because these provocateurs seem to pop up throughout history in similar ways. In truth, the film sometimes plays like a psychedelic cover version of It Can’t Happen Here. We’ve seen the celebrity-driven, public-aided rise of fascism in other films, from A Face in the Crowd to Bob Roberts, to say nothing of the history books.

Wild in the Streets is so very, very Sixties, though. The vivid costumes, the perpetual drug use, the liberal use of groovy lingo…they all root the film firmly in its time. Providing an additional anchor are the rock songs performed by aspiring dictator Max Frost and his band, the Troopers. It may stretch the imagination to think that these songs represent the sound of a revolutionary generation; to these ears, they sound like The Animals. (Their best song, “The Shape of Things to Come,” was a genuine hit, and re-emerged nearly 40 years later in a Target ad; the revolution will be commercialized.) But Wild in the Streets isn’t quite as concerned with the “how” as it is with the “what comes next.”

Legendary schlockmeister producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff backed the film with one of the biggest budgets they had ever laid out on a single picture, and it shows. Editors Fred R. Feitshans, Jr. and Eve Newman earned an Oscar nomination for capturing the feel of Max’s unsettled mind, the production design is bold and colorful, and the movie boasts an unusually strong cast for what was essentially an exploitation picture. (Blink and you’ll miss a very young Richard Pryor, underused in a non-comedic role as Max’s black-power drummer). This is still an American International Picture, however, with carefully chosen stock footage, heavy-handed narration by Paul Frees, and all topped off by Shelley Winters, so over-the-top as Max’s horrible mother that one longs for the relative calm and dignity of The Poseidon Adventure. Her awfulness is absolute (the moment she gets behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce, she runs over a child), but as the root cause of Max Frost’s lust for power, it’s oddly appropriate. Mixing high production values with low satire, the film has a tendency to feel like an extended riff on the famous “Blue Boy” episode of “Dragnet.”

At times, the strident tone of the movie threatens to dull the impact of its message, but the threat posed by fascism and a failure to take responsibility seriously is never far away. Consider Max’s girlfriend Sally, a zonked-out former child star whom he conspires to get elected to Congress. The realization that this glassy-eyed burnout is the linchpin of Max’s strategy is one of the movie’s biggest laughs, but when Sally takes her place in the House of Representatives and manages to push away the drug haze long enough to set Max’s plan in motion, the funny quickly drains away, and the mood shifts first to deeply uncomfortable, and then to outright horror. The idea that politics is a joke isn’t so funny once you start to treat it like one.

Because ultimately, Wild in the Streets isn’t a joke at all. It’s a nightmare. Go beyond the surface conflict of unruly youth declaring war on intransigent adults, and you find the story of a fascist who rises to power on the backs of an outspoken movement which he never truly intends to appease. It’s telling that, in the movie’s Twilight Zone”-ish finale, Max discovers the one true downside to absolute power: when you’re king of the hill, someone’s always waiting to knock you off. Again, any similarity to your power at the ballot box in November is entirely coincidental, of course.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Shelley Winters, as George’s mother, gives the most tasteless performance of her career, while Barry Shear directs as if he’d seen Dr. Strangelove a few too many times.”–Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

CAPSULE: BLOW-UP (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Michelangelo Antonioni

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A hedonistic fashion photographer snaps some candid pictures of a couple in a park; when he looks at the negatives, he thinks he may have discovered evidence of a murder.

Still from Blow-up (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blow-Up is only subtly weird, and its oddness only becomes truly apparent at the end. This site’s readers have never, to my memory, suggested this movie for review; and yet, Antonioni’s ambiguous examination of London mods in existential free-fall is something of a canonical art film that must be touched upon in a comprehensive survey of weird films.

COMMENTS: Let me put Blow-Up in a personal context. When I first saw this movie in my early twenties, I despised it. I can’t find my original review, but in essence, my viewpoint was that making a deliberately boring movie in order to critique the boredom of modern life—capped by the director dangling a single point of interest in front of the audience, only to snatch it away—was a reprehensible bit of auteurial sadism. Over time, however, I have to admit that several moments from Blow-Up lingered in my memory for years, like snapshots, indicating that the movie can’t be as bad, or as boring, as I originally thought it was. Seeing it again after a couple of intervening decades, I find I tolerate its (significant) longeurs much better; and, although I’ll stop short of reassessing it as a must-see masterpiece, I do reluctantly find its intellectual ambiguities (eventually) involving.

To understand the experience of Blow-Up, it’s important to point out that, for most of this film, nothing of significance happens. But a few scenes pop. There are, basically, four such sequences (leaving aside the opening where a gaggle of rambunctious mimes rampage through the streets of London, which might have been forgotten had they not returned in the coda). After a first half of the movie that features David Hemmings doing nothing other than snapping photographs of emaciated models, making snotty comments, and considering buying a propeller, the first scene of actual interest occurs when the movie is more than halfway over, when he looks at a series of photographs he snapped in the park earlier in the day. He thinks he sees something that might be a clue to a murder. What really “pops” about this scene is the photographer’s sudden look of interest as he peers at the blown-up negatives; mostly, he has appeared as bored as the audience up until this point. The fact that this monumentally jaded character is suddenly roused by this discovery makes it seem extra-important to us; the look of fascination on his face says to us “something is finally happening, the movie is starting!”

Indeed, the movie is starting, but not in the way we expect. As he blows up the photos, scanning for them for clues, the photographer is distracted by the appearance of two aspiring models, who bed him. It’s a hot scene, but the memorable part is when post-coital Hemmings suddenly glances at the photographs hanging on the wall, catches a new detail, and brusquely dismisses the birds to resume his investigation. Blow-Up‘s rhythm now requires that the photographer vacillate between intense commitment to solving the mystery and distraction by sex, drugs and the rock and roll lifestyle, so as he tries to investigate the suspected murder and convince his fellow mods to become involved, he finds himself wandering into a bizarre Yardbirds concert with a zombie-like audience. The final “popping” scene is the much talked-about finale, where, after having failed to solve the mystery, Hemmings encounters the hip mimes from the opening again. They pantomime a tennis game and ask him to fetch an imaginary ball in a final game that suggests that the thing we are seeking can be found, but we must know how to look.

Focusing on those key scenes and discarding the chaff makes Blow-Up a stronger film; the background noise of the photographer’s meaningless, fashionable mod existence is the texture from which the few meaningful moments pop. Although many movies improve on a second viewing, I can’t think of any that do so as dramatically as Blow-Up. Unlike Hemmings, the second time around we know what we are looking for. There’s nothing terribly obscure in the film’s overall design and sensibility, only in the maddening details and the quest to make sense of them. Blow-up is a foundational text of cinema d’ennui.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) and reminds one of so many naïvely bad experimental films.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DOORS (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , Meg Ryan, , Kathleen Quinlan

PLOT: In the 1960’s, Jim Morrison (Kilmer), the lead singer of the rock group The Doors, plunges headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He doesn’t make it out alive, dying at the tragically young age of 27 (just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin); the film ends on a shot of Morrison’s gravestone in Paris in the same cemetery as Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.

Still from The Doors (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Just because a movie features a large number of hallucinatory LSD “trips” doesn’t necessarily make it weird.

COMMENTS: No one does overblown insanity like Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday). On a huge movie theater screen, with huge movie theater sound, The Doors was a stunning, overwhelming experience—particularly the concert sequences, which Stone said were inspired by the orgy scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments. But on television—even a big screen HDTV—all that spectacle is reduced to an entertainingly silly and pretentious camp exercise, redeemed by one unforgettable performance by Val Kilmer that almost alone makes the film worth seeing. Although Kilmer essentially reduces Morrison to a caricature (he never seems to be sober), he looks and sounds so much like the real thing that it’s eerie. How Kilmer didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. He blows everyone else off the screen (with the arguable exception of , perfectly cast in a cameo as ). Meg Ryan fights her girl-next-door-image as Morrison’s doomed lover Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley have nothing to do but a slow burn as “The Lizard King”’s increasingly frustrated bandmates. Morrison is increasingly haunted by visions of his own death, the ghost of Dionysus (or something), and an elderly Native American man (Floyd Red Crow Westerman); as everyone on screen descends deeper into drugs and despair (Morrison and Courson each try to kill each other), the movie spins so far out of control it almost ventures into territory. The result is that nearly everyone in the film comes off as seriously unlikable. Morrison seems to believe he deserves to be buried with Balzac, Proust and Moliere–which he ultimately was—from frame one. That being said, some of us like silly and pretentious spectacle, so, if you are one of those, try to see this film on the biggest possible screen and the best sound system around. This would at least attempt to do justice to the Doors’ legendary music and Robert Richardson’s staggering cinematography.

Stone’s 141-minute wallow in hysterical excess and bombast is nutty and ultimately exhausting, but far from weird, particularly when it comes to movies about drugs and/or rock music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most peculiar about the film is Stone’s attitude toward his hero. He’s indulging in hagiography, but of a very weird sort. A good part of the film is dedicated to demonstrating what a drunken, boring lout Morrison was. But while on the one hand Stone acknowledges how basically pointless and destructive his excesses became, on the other, he keeps implying that it’s all part of the creative process… Amid all this trippy incoherence, the performances are almost irrelevant.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)