In 1958, producer Richard Gordon offered Boris Karloff a two-picture deal with director Robert Day. The dual productions, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, would be A (or A-) budget productions, providing the actor a starring role and a salary to match. Karloff jumped at the offer. It had been twelve years since his last star-quality vehicle, the Val Lewton-produced Bedlam (directed by Mark Robson). Since then, Karloff had been stuck in character parts (1951’s The StrangeDoor, 1952’s The Black Castle), playing opposite Abbott and Costello (1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer), or crap (1954’s The Island Monster and 1957’s Voodoo Island). He had fared better in television (as one of the few big screen stars of the time who had no qualms jumping to the small screen).
The Haunted Strangler is often assessed as the lesser of the two Day/Karloff films, with the actor at his hammiest since 1934’s The Lost Patrol (directed by John Ford and featuring Karloff’s worst performance). Much of the film’s considerable budget went into expensive sets and into securing its lead actor, which unfortunately short-shifted the makeup department: Karloff’s Hyde-like transformation is reduced to the actor tilting his head, mussing up hair, twisting his hand into a claw, and biting lower lip. It is distracting as hell, and critics have been divided on assessing his performance as a whole. Another oft-cited critique is the predictable storyline. In its defense, classic horror fans usually rely on the overused virtues of atmosphere. There are also lurid elements of exploitation (champagne-soaked cleavage, Busby Berkeley-inspired can-can crotch shots, gruesome murders of women, floggings, bedlam abuses, broken glass to the face, etc) to keep up the interest.
A film is more than a plot or good makeup effects, however, and Day counts on the actor to carry this character-driven opus. Karloff plays a writer named Rankin, seeking justice for a man whom he believes was wrongly executed as the Haymarket Strangler. Rankin believes the true serial killer is still at large, and through his investigation we are transported through a series of impressive set pieces, from a dilapidated asylum to a gravesite ripe for defiling, a prison, and a sleazy cabaret. The narrative “twist” is transparent almost from the opening, and witnessing Karloff’s B-film descent into hysterical lunacy makes for a beguiling contrast with the A-quality art production. Given the flimsy plotting, a more subdued performance would have rendered the enterprise vapid. Despite the film’s obvious flaws, blatant titillation, and dated makeup, Karloff bounces through a project that is tailor-made for him.
DIRECTED BY: Lufi O. Akad (Law of the Border), Lino Brocka (Insiang), Mario Peixoto (Limite), Ermek Shinarbaev (Revenge), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Mysterious Object at Noon), Edward Yang (Taipei Story)
FEATURING: Tsai Chin (Taipei Story), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taipei Story), Yilmaz Guney (Law of the Border), Hilda Koronel (Insiang)
PLOT: This box set contains six newly restored art films from across the globe, most of which have never been released separately.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “World Cinema Project” is an initiative to preserve films from around the world (especially the third world) which have cultural value as relics of their particular times and places, but which alone lack the commercial appeal necessary for market forces to do the job. While there are some curious obscurities in this second set, none of them are strong enough to demand a separate review, much less contend for a spot among the weirdest films of all time.
COMMENTS: Of the six random entries in the latest installment of the Martin Scorsese-led film preservation, surprisingly, half of them include elements that might spark the interest of fans of weird cinema. We can deal with the three others quickly enough. 1966’s Law of the Border is a “Turkish Western” about smugglers on the Syrian/Turkish border who try, and fail, to go straight as sharecroppers. A work of social realism, but with action-oriented gunfights, it’s somewhat confusing as narrative and rudimentary as cinema. The Filipino melodrama Insiang (1976), about a pretty but much-abused slum dweller who devises a complicated revenge plot against her embittered mother and a much older seducer, fares better, engaging the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Edward Yang’s Tapei Story (1985) is standard arthouse fare: a stately but not exactly gripping social drama about urban ugliness and alienation, generational clashes and changes, and so on. It may well win over intellectual-minded drama-hounds with its realism and cynicism, but it gave me a distinct “been there, done that—only now in Taiwan” feeling.
The three less conventional entries deserve slightly more attention, although none of them have quite enough weird weight to merit a full review (though if any spark your interest, by all means chase them down). Limite is a legendary Brazilian silent film, long thought lost and even now missing crucial elements, which turns out to be underwhelming. It’s the only film of Mario Peixoto, who was only twenty-one at the time. It’s “poetic” and “meditative,” which is to say, slower and more obscure than it needs to be. Peixoto shows a good deal of talent, with a gripping contextless opening image of a handcuffed woman which could have come from a lost Buñuel/Dalí collaboration and a humorously inventive tracking shot where the camera outpaces its wandering subject, then doubles back to catch up with her as she leans against a post, resting. Mostly, however, it’s composed of a lot of scenes of a scraggly threesome languishing in a lifeboat, with largely dialogue-free flashbacks explaining how they got there. Overlong and unclear, with many superfluous, indulgent camera experiments, it seems more like a first draft of a good movie rather than a completed masterpiece.
In a way Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s Mysterious Object at Noon is the outlier in the set, since “Joe”‘s fan base is large enough that his 2000 feature debut has long been available on video (although this release marks its first appearance on Region A Blu-ray). It is doubtlessly a strange film, nonetheless, even by Joe’s standards. A narrative/documentary hybrid, the concept is that the director goes on a road trip through rural Thailand, inviting the people he meets to add a new chapter to a story. He films some of these sequences as mini-movies, stages another as a play, and spends a lot of time simply interviewing the participants. Unfortunately, the tale they come up with, about a crippled boy, his live-in teacher, and an alien, is disjointed and absurd in an uninvolving way; Mysterious Object is only interesting on the slightest formal and intellectual level. The experiment is ultimately a failure, though a noteworthy one.
1989’s Revenge, a Kazakhstani effort made during the glasnost period, is the set’s biggest surprise. The movie was made under the old Soviet apparatus but orphaned, with no funds for distribution or promotion, when that empire dissolved only two years later. It’s a sprawling near-epic of a man literally conceived as a tool of revenge for the murder of the sister he never knew, bookended by Buddhist parables. Born to be a poet but fated to be an avenger, mystical occurrences dog the boy’s journey from Korea through China to Russia in pursuit of his sister’s killer. It’s a strange and spiritual plea for poetry above worldliness, lit by outstanding cinematography and draped in vivid period costuming. Had more of the movies in the set been unexpected revelations like this one, this edition of the “World Cinema Project” might have earned a general recommendation.
While each of these films is significant in some way, they aren’t, as a lot, overlooked masterpieces. There’s a reason that none of them were considered commercial enough for a standalone release. (The exceptions, perhaps, are Mysterious Object, which was previously released on DVD, and Limite, which could have been marketed to hardcore cinema historians as a lost cult film). As a purchase, the set is hard to recommend except to the most dedicated film scholars with an overabundance of disposable income. The movies have so little uniting them that even if you were intrigued by three of these titles, that would still leave you paying for another three you had little to no interest in. Highbrow cinephiles may feel obliged to salivate at this buffet, but sadly, the spread elevates diversity above quality.
“I hate the irrational. However, I believe that even the most flagrant irrationality must contain something of rational truth. There is nothing in this human world of ours that is not in some way right, however distorted it may be.”–William Reich
PLOT: After a disorienting “overture” hinting at themes to come, WR settles in as a documentary on the late work and life of William Reich, the controversial disciple of Sigmund Freud who came to believe in the therapeutic power of the orgasm and in a mystical energy called “orgone.” Gradually, other semi-documentary countercultue snippets intrude, including hippie Vietnam protesters, the confessions of a transsexual, and some fairly explicit erotic scenes (in one, a female sculptor casts a mold of a volunteer’s erect penis). Finally, a fictional narrative—the story of a sexually liberated Yugoslavian girl seducing a repressed Soviet dancer—begins to take precedence, leading to a suitably bizarre conclusion.
William Reich was a controversial figure in psychoanalysis; a highly respected disciple of Freud as a young man, his ideas grew more extreme and crankish as he aged. A reformed Marxist, he coined the phrase “sexual revolution” and devised an orgasm-based psychotherapy. His theorizing about “orgone energy” led to promotion of boxes called “orgone accumulators,” which he claimed could cure disease and control the weather. This device got him into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration, and he was eventually persecuted for fraud, then imprisoned for contempt after refusing to stop selling his books and devices. He died in prison.
The hippie performance artist is Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs (Fugs songs also appear on the soundtrack).
The film’s transvestite is Jackie Curtis, the Andy Warhol Superstar mentioned in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Jackie was just speeding away…”
The segments with Josef Stalin come from the Soviet propaganda film The Vow (1946).
WR was banned in Yugoslavia until 1986. It was either banned (for obscenity West of the Iron Curtain, for politics to the East) or heavily cut in many other countries. The film ended Makavejev’s career as a director in Yugoslavia; all of his future features were produced in North America, Europe or Austraila.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Yugoslavian sexpot doing her impression of the Brain that Wouldn’t Die, declaring “even now I’m not ashamed of my Communist past,” while her forensic pathologist stands above her holding the decapitation implement: an ice skate.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Penis molding; “Milena in the Pan”; hymn to a horse
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A straight-up documentary of the clinically insane psychiatrist William Reich would necessarily have been a little bizarre, but that’s just the starting point for this crazy-quilt counterculture collage that alternates between Reichian sexual theories, demonstrations of New York decadence, and esoteric Marxist dialectic.
“One thing I knew for sure (from my own dreaming) was that what one dreams just before waking structures the following day. That dream material is gathered from the previous day, and therefore is a gathering of all previous days, ergo contains the structure of all history, of all Man… I wanted PRELUDE to be a created dream for the work that follows rather than Surrealism which takes its inspiration from dream; I stayed close to practical usage of dream material, in terms of learning and studying, for a while before editing. At this time I left strict myth considerations out of my study process as much as possible..”–Stan Brakhage speaking on Dog Star Man in “Metaphors on Vision”
PLOT: This silent non-narrative film is presented in four parts: a 20-minute “Prelude” introduces many of the visual motifs that will show up in later installments, followed by “Part One,” which focuses on a man climbing a mountain with his dog. The man continues his climb in the seven-minute “Part Two,” but the picture now focuses on a baby boy, with abstract figures superimposed directly on the film. “Part Three” is a “sexual daydream” of a nude woman, with even more layered images, and “Part Four” is an even more abstract culmination of all that has come before.
Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage completed almost 400 films during his life (some of which run for less than a minute).
Dog Star Man is the final compilation of five short films Brakhage produced between 1961 and 1964. They are almost never screened separately, although the Prelude could stand alone.
While making Dog Star Man, Brakhage was unemployed and living with his wife and her parents in their Colorado cabin; to earn his keep, he chopped wood for the family.
Brakhage named his movie after a pulp novel he picked up as a boy, because he thought it a shame that such a great title would be forever wasted on a tawdry paperback.
The film is structured with increasing visual complexity. Brakhage shot one layer of film for part one, two for part 2 (and also for the prelude), three for part 3, and four for part 4. The layers of film were then superimposed on top of each other.
Brakhage later produced a four-and-a-half hour cut of this material called The Art of Vision, which rearranged every layer of film Brakhage shot for the project into every possible combination of superimpositions (within each part).
Chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most of the amazing visual effects Brakhage achieves with his complex superimpositions fly by too quickly for us to consciously register—some can be seen for only a single frame or two. The most important repeated symbol in the film, however, may be the most mundane: the woodcutter struggling up the snowy mountain with his axe, stumbling and falling, while his dog happily bounds at his side.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Phosphenes on film; baby with snowflakes; sex and beating hearts
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Meticulous and intentionally unentertaining, Dog Star Man is a masterwork of consciously constructed dream cinema.
PLOT: Tetsu tries to quit the yakuza life after his boss goes straight, but a rival gang leader wants the building they own—and Tetsu’s life.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a rare case of a movie being screened out by competition from its own maker. Had Seijun Suzuki never made Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter just might stand as the most unusual yakuza picture ever made (at least, until Takashi Miike arrived on the scene). But Suzuki took his deconstruction of the genre so much farther the very next year that Tokyo Drifter, while a stunning visual achievement, seems conventional in Branded‘s wake. Unfair to Drifter, which should stand alone on its own strange merits? Perhaps, but these two films, made (almost) back-to-back and leading to Suzuki being blackballed from the Japanese film industry for genre rebellion, will always be linked together in film history—and Branded to Kill will always be remembered as “the weird one.” You are still advised to watch them both.
COMMENTS: A movie so cool they ripped off its title for a Fast and Furious installment, Tokyo Drifter is an exercise in pure style. Seijun Suzuki, bored with the generic gangster scripts Nikkatsu Studios kept giving him as a B-director, amuses himself with outlandish set pieces while deconstructing the genre before our very eyes. The plot is a standard tale of loyalty and betrayal, merely an outline for Suzuki to hang his experiments on. Scenes are clipped—for example, how does Tetsu appear in the driver’s seat of the kidnappers car, other than by magic? How is his showdown on the train tracks resolved? We never see him actually escape. How does he evade certain death time and time again, with Viper showing up each time to drive him to his next drifting destination? It all makes sense, but only mythologically. Tetsu is a heroic archetype, a chosen one, undefeatable but cursed to wander forever without satisfaction. Suzuki simply chooses to cut out a lot of inessential exposition and get right to the cool stuff. He gives us the elements of the myth without bothering with the logistics.
Whereas the followup film, Branded to Kill, is a record of haunted characters and obsessive themes, Tokyo Drifter is a thrill ride of stylish moments. The film is suffused with comic book colors and Pop Art sensibilities, and magnificent sets inspired equally by German Expressionism and Surrealism. The prologue mixes black and white with color sequences (and one shot incorporating both color and monochrome). Tetsu is seldom caught without his stylish powder-blue suit, which remains unrumpled no matter how many tussles he gets into. His gun blazes with a bright pink muzzle flash. The soundtrack is cool, Bond-ish spy-jazz, with a “drifter” theme song for Tetsu (performed as a torch song by his chanteuse moll, and whistled by Tetsu to announce his presence). Tetsu’s is a world of alleyways of full of jazz bars advertising their disreputable wares with garish neon signs. In an Old West-themed saloon in a U.S. Navy town, he gets caught up in a brawl that turns into havoc-laced slapstick straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. What you’ll probably remember best are the sets: Kurata’s office, which has Roman frescoes on one wall, and an abstract red and white light sculpture on the opposite wall. Even more impressive is the Club Aires cabaret, where the wild finale happens. It features an Expressionist door mounted atop a staircase and a sculpture of a slender, Dali-esque figure hoisting a giant doughnut above his head. At night it’s a complete black void, except for a spotlight, a glowing white piano, and a glowing red torus. Drifter may not have made bank, but Tokyo Drift wishes it could be a fraction as groovy as its swinging forebear.
The Criterion Collection disc (DVD or Blu-ray) includes two Suzuki interviews and the original Japanese trailer.
PLOT: Straight-laced businessman Charlie impulsively hops into a car with wild gal Lulu, who takes him on an extended adventure that exhilarates him until her psycho ex-con ex arrives on the scene.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I must be missing something about Something Wild. I get why people like it: likeable cast top to bottom, sexy Melanie Griffith, easy to follow story that’s comfortably familiar but still manages to surprise. What I don’t get is its cult movie reputation, Criterion Collection-worthiness, or recommendation for coverage on a weird movie site.
COMMENTS: Something Wild is a masculine mid-life crisis daydream, with Melanie Griffith as the manic pixie dream girl on a meth binge who leads “closet rebel” yuppie Jeff Bridges into a wonderland of forbidden pleasures and the danger that accompanies them. Casual drinking and driving, handcuffs as a sex toy, cruising down the highway in a convertible, picking up hitchhikers, shoplifting, dash-and-dines, singalongs to unthreatening rock and roll hits, jealous stares at the wild babe on your arm, winning the girl’s heart away from the abusive bad boy jock—all the joys of the late teenage years are here, for a middle aged man who really knows how to appreciate them to savor. Bridges’ Charlie is a solidly nice guy, who remains so in our eyes even after he abandons his wife, children and colleagues. In real life Griffth’s kooky free-spirited Lulu would be an alcoholic sociopath destined for a bad end. In the movie’s reality, however, the mismatched couple have nothing but sexy wacky adventures—at least, until Ray Liotta springs onto the scene like a blade out of a switchblade to add a dose of the dangerous reality that would face any two people who let their hormones lead them this far astray.
Maybe the mild kinkiness and the tone-shift (which is frequently overstated in its impact) seemed fresh in 1986—although maybe not, considering that was the year that gave us Blue Velvet. If there’s anything remarkable about Something Wild, it’s the way that the script and direction keep us so darn comfortable with Charlie and Lulu’s outré adventures, grounding them in the conventions of realist romantic comedy while teasing us that we are glimpsing the exotic pleasures of the hedonist set. Offbeat and sexy, this is a fine comfort movie to watch while munching popcorn on the sofa—but it’s not hard to find something wilder. Just browse the sidebar here.
Look for cameos by directors John Sayles and John Waters. Extras on the relatively bare Criterion Collection disc include the trailer, a 30-minute interview with director Demme, and a 10-minute discussion with screenwriter E. Max Frye. This is not to be confused with 1961’s less-known but arguably weirder Something Wild, starring Carroll Baker as a rape victim in a fugue state, which is also in the Criterion Collection.
PLOT: A stranger rides into town and helps a struggling widow to master the art of noodle preparation, while peripheral characters enact food-related comic sketches.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Tampopo‘s parodic tale of noodle shop warfare is almost straightforward, if offbeat. Fortunately, there are enough surreal diversions—a fourth-wall breaking introduction where a gangster lectures the audience about eating too loudly during the movie and scenes exploring the erotic possibilities of live shrimp and egg yolks—to make this one worth a weird watch.
COMMENTS: Few movies can make you as hungry as Tampopo, the savory “noodle Western” (or “Eastern”) about an itinerant truck driver/gourmet who trains a mediocre cook to prepare the world’s greatest bowl of ramen. The main plot lightly parodies Westerns, with the stranger wandering into town to help (and woo) the local attractive widow, complete with showdowns with the local gang—although they battle not with guns, but with cutlery. In between advancing that storyline, the film takes time out for unrelated absurdist sketches revolving around food. (In the first of these, we visit a five star restaurant for a business meal where sycophantic salarymen order the same bland meal as the boss, while in another room a matronly etiquette maven tries in vain to teach young ladies to eat their spaghetti without slurping). The most of memorable of these excursions involves a mysterious yakuza in a white suit, who has kinky gourmet sex in a hotel room with his mistress. Come to think of it, the movie may make you as horny as it does hungry, although the sex is (almost) all done in good taste.
Not that it’s all fluffy, marshmallowy cinema. There are moments here that seem better fitted to a Jacopetti and Prosperi mondo film, such as the killing of a turtle (with one quick slice from a knife inserted under the shell), and the thematically meaningful yet taboo footage that plays while the credits roll. Many people find the egg yolk foreplay more yucky than erotic, while there’s another scene where the yakuza flirts with–and even French kisses—a dangerously underage oyster fisherwoman. These scenes are mildly shocking, although they’re neither mean-spirited nor deployed simply for the sake of shock. They add pungent, R-rated spice to a movie that might otherwise be too sweet and mild; with a few judicious cuts, it’s appropriate for a school-age crowd.
I first saw Tampopo (on VHS) when it came out thirty years ago, and although I had a generally good impression of it, I didn’t remember much beyond the basic premise. I’m surprised that I didn’t recall it as being especially strange or surreal. I found it a more interesting film this time around, which suggests that this may be a movie that takes some life seasoning to appreciate. It’s essentially a silly work, but as a paean to the pleasures of food and sex (and movies), it’s an easy one to champion.
The Criterion Collection released Tampopo on DVD in 2010, then finally upgraded it to Blu-ray this year (2017).