Tag Archives: Cult film

CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: P. J. Soles, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones

PLOT: Riff Randell battles the punk-hating administration at her high school by invoking the musical powers of her favorite band, The Ramones.

Still from Rock 'n Roll High School (1979)

COMMENTS: The Ramones were icons of minimalism. Progenitors of punk, they pioneered a sound that was somehow both retro and revolutionary, delivering two-chord, two-minute landmarks that had none of the feel of craft and all of the sensation of having been spewed out of the most primal reaches of the band members’ autonomic nervous systems. Everything about them was reduced to its bare essentials: a basic guitar-bass-drum setup, fronted by a flat, nasal vocal that was tuneful while making no pretensions to being musical, presented by a group that spoke to punk’s fierce independence with a façade of careful uniformity, from the matching leather jackets and torn jeans to the identical messy face-obscuring Kate Jackson hairstyles, and even extending to their manufactured noms de théâtre. Everything about them was carefully engineered to celebrate everybody by being nobody.

So the notion that the Ramones would be the centerpiece of a bubbly teenager’s every waking moment is a little dissonant. And that they would somehow come to have an entire feature film devoted to them—one with a substantial cult following—is nothing short of bizarre. It’s the domain of old people to complain that the kids are making idols out of empty shells, but the emptiness of the Ramones is part of their very essence. They’re almost antithetical to the idea of teenybop worship. To watch P J. Soles’ Riff Randell—a veritable firehose of giddy hyperactivity—go gaga for this quartet of empty t-shirts is to plunge headlong through the looking glass. Try to imagine a Disney Channel original movie where a precocious 12-year old learns self-confidence through the power of her favorite band, and that band turns out to be GWAR. (Note to Disney: Please greenlight this. I will absolutely write the script for you.)

But for the purposes of the Roger Corman film factory, the Ramones hardly matter. They’re answer to a Mad Lib wherein [INSERT NAME OF BAND] inspires kids to overthrow those dullard grownups. (It’s telling that Corman’s original suggestion was center the film around disco music, an idea that would have been truly transgressive if it had been filmed two years earlier and dared to address the politics of race and sexual orientation endemic to the genre.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has one goal, and it’s to tell the kids how much cooler they are than those stick-in-the-mud adults. And if we have to put our thumb on the scale to make the old people especially dorky and uncool, well hey, that’s just Roger Corman being a smart businessman.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of movie that Rock ‘n’ Continue reading CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

CAPSULE: RETURN TO OZ (1985)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

PLOT: After being sent for experimental shock therapy, Dorothy Gale returns to Oz, where she meets new magical friends and enemies as she tries to save the Scarecrow from the clutches of the Nome King.

Still from Return to Oz (1985)

COMMENTS: Few people today realize that, after the smash success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and other writers continued the official Oz legacy for a couple dozen additional volumes). With so much material available, it’s a surprise that it took Hollywood almost fifty years to create a live-action1 sequel to 1939’s Oz blockbuster; had the original been made in today’s entertainment climate, we would be seeing a new Oz movie every year—at least.

The reasons for the delay had partly to do with rights to the originals being divided up between rival studios (MGM optioned the first book, Disney all the rest). By the 1980s, Disney’s rights to Baum’s works were about to lapse, so in 1985 they handed respected sound-editor-turned-first-time director Walter Murch the opportunity to create a sequel, based mainly on Baum’s third book, “Ozma of Oz,” but also incorporating parts of the immediate sequel “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and original ideas. The resulting movie was a box office flop, often criticized for being too “dark.” But children who saw it in theaters remembered it more fondly than their parents or contemporary critics did, turning Return into a minor cult film on video.

Encouraged by Murch’s own characterization of his work, the accepted wisdom that Return is “dark” is repeated like a mantra every time the film is brought up: often as a criticism or warning, but sometimes as a compliment or lure, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, while Return is indisputably scary, “dark” implies some kind of inappropriate moral perversity found nowhere in Oz. In the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faced a green-faced hag bent on revenge-killing both her and her lapdog, a magical best friend who’s nearly incinerated, and pursuit from nightmarish flying monkeys dressed as bellhops. These vintage horrors compare quite favorably to those found in Return—but just because no one periodically breaks out in lighthearted songs about missing vital organs, the later movie is forever branded as “dark,” while the earlier one is a beloved childhood classic. Return to Oz‘s half-rock Nome king is eerily brought to life through uncanny claymation, but he’s no darker than Margaret Hamilton’s cackling harridan. Return features bizarre creatures called the Wheelers, who dress like New Wave punks who would have been at home as extras in Liquid Sky but for the wheels grafted onto their hands and feet, who a slink about the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City. Scary, but then again, they’re not freaking flying monkeys.

The darkest element in Return is purely subtextual, and will go right over young ones’ heads: the primitive turn-of-the-century electroshock therapy to which Dorothy’s aunt and uncle subject the girl hoping to cure her of her yearnings for Oz (a procedure that ironically sparks her return to the fantasyland). The reference to barbaric mental health practices of olden times is indeed dark, but few kids would get why in 1985 (and even fewer in 2021). There is an even darker undercurrent, though. This plot device could be read as implying that Dorothy Gale isn’t just an innocent dreamer; in fact, she’s deeply mentally ill, and the land of Oz is her schizoid hallucination. But again, this twist just disturbs the older folks: kids accept Dorothy’s adventures at face value, and remain blissfully ignorant of the suggestion of juvenile insanity.

Return to Oz could never live up to the original movie; wisely, it doesn’t try to. It ditches the musical numbers, which would have inevitably disappointed. 9-year-old Fairuza Balk seems chosen as lead based solely on her jewel-like eyes; she’s no Judy Garland (and she’s confusingly younger than the Dorothy of Wizard), but she’ll do. When we finally see the updated Scarecrow, beloved Ray Bolger has been transformed into an animated puppet, and he’s… a little off. But Dorothy’s new cast of allies are mostly delightful: a talking chicken, roly-poly mechanical soldier Tik-Tok, childlike Jack Pumpkinhead, a moose head attached to a flying couch. So are the villains: evil Queen Mombi with her detachable heads, the severe and mostly-animated grey Nome King. After a slow start, in a full color Kansas, the movie morphs into a well-paced 80s children’s adventure tale, with thrilling escapes and despicable (if not quite “dark”) acts of villainy. It has that magical “Oz” spirit—minus the songs, which obviously wasn’t part of Baum’s original work—and it’s easy to see why those who first saw it as kids fell in love with it. A good fantasy for first time viewers, and great nostalgia for grown-ups.

Also, be sure to read Jesse Miksic‘s detailed analysis for this site, “The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”–Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

(This movie was first nominated for review by “ubik,” who said that it “was probably the movie that first gave me a taste for weird movies way back in the day.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

16*. BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gigi Darlene

PLOT: Meg awakens beside her young husband, who leaves her alone in their apartment to go to a business meeting. Stepping outside her door to empty the trash, she is assaulted by the building’s janitor, and kills him while he’s trying to rape her. Fearing that no one will believe her story of self-defense, Meg gets on a bus to New York City, where she shacks up with a series of roommates.

Still from Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Background information about Doris Wishman can be found in the Indecent Desires Canonical entry.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s either the snarling face of a rapist or a woman in her underwear. (Or, I suppose, I random shot of a shoe.) We selected the moment when Gigi Darlene demonstrates her junior-high tumbling skills for her drooling lesbian roommate by crab walking across the apartment floor (in her underwear, of course).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Drunken belt-whipping; random plants, ashtrays, and feet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Bad Girls Go to Hell has the visual sensibilities of a drunk and apathetic , the narrative talents of an Ed Wood, and the moral sensibilities of a 42nd Street raincoater; yet, somehow it creates a sense of alienation and dislocation reminiscent of Carnival of Souls .


Original trailer for Bad Girls Go to Hell (mildly NSWF)

COMMENTS: It’s amazing how barren a movie that clocks in at just Continue reading 16*. BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965)

CAPSULE: DAY OF THE BEAST (1995)

El día de la bestia

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Santiago Segura, Armando De Razza

PLOT: A priest decides he must become a great sinner as part of a scheme to summon the Devil and stop the Apocalypse; he enlists a death metal fan and a TV occultist to help him.

Still from Day of the Beast (1995)

COMMENTS: Cult favorite Day of the Beast builds its story around a trinity of characters, who become sort of the three anti-wise men at the nativity of the Antichrist. Having discovered the place and date of the Antichrist’s birth (typical of copycat Satan, it’s to be on Christmas Day), priest Angel enacts a plan to draw the devil’s attention by committing as many sins as possible. His apprentice crimes involve him stealing a beggar’s alms and assaulting a helpless mime (an act that shows how poor his grasp of the idea of “evil” really is). Angel knows he needs help to get that real, gnarly aura of wickedness, so he seeks out death metal records to play backwards; impressed with his musical taste, dimwitted and instinctually sinful record clerk Jose Maria agrees to tag along on the apostate’s adventures. Now, the duo need only recruit occultist television charlatan Cavan to teach them the necessary rituals to summon Old Scratch.

Of course, that requires them to convince a reluctant Cavan to join them… and to acquire the blood of a virgin and other items necessary for the ritual. Around the halfway mark, things get truly wild; de la Iglesia picks up the pace, sending his trio through an obstacle course that sees them fending off a matron with a shotgun and hanging off a neon billboard atop a skyscraper. Along the way there are a few genuinely weird scenes: a naked LSD-scarfing grandpa, and a trip to a convenience store where the staff has been dispatched by an anarchist murder cult. But mostly, the film is a series of black comedy hijinks and effective Satanic horror imagery (the devil is depicted both by a real goat and by a man in a goat costume). It’s quite a ride: subversive, but with comic characters you actually like and root for.

This was de la Iglesia’s sophomore feature and is typical of his output: genre pictures with strong characterizations, brutal violence, transgressive imagery, dark humor, and complex, fast-paced plots. They all have a / energy to them that might be best described more as “wild” than “weird.” Perhaps we should consider de la Iglesia’s work “weird-adjacent.” Whatever you call it, it’s well worth checking out.

El día de la bestia  was a big success in Spain, even notching a Best Director Goya (and five other awards, too, although not Best Picture). Unfortunately, other than a successful international film festival run, it did not screen much outside of its native land, and was poorly distributed on home video, not even scoring a region 1 DVD release. Severin rectified this absence in 2021 with a Blu-ray edition of Day of the Beast (along with another rarely-seen de la Iglesia movie, 1997’s Perdita Durango). Along with a newly restored print, the deluxe release contains a feature-length “making of” documentary, interviews with de la Iglesia and select cast and crew, and most substantially, de la Iglesia’s 1990 short film “Mirandas Asesinas,” an antique-looking B&W horror comedy featuring Álex Angulo as a literal-minded psychopath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… appealingly unrefined, this serving of satanic excess and good-naturedly dumb humor should please young audiences with a taste for off-the-wall cult fare.”–David Rooney, Variety (contemporaneous)

BOOK REVIEW: DAY OF THE LIVING ME: ADVENTURES OF A CULT FILMMAKER FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (2020)

Memoirs from filmmakers tend to be a mixed bag. The best ones balance useful and entertaining trivia pertinent to the field along with mildly salacious insider stories (AKA “gossip”). It’s an added bonus when they actually illuminate the career of people whose work you found interesting, but whom you didn’t really know much about.

Jeff Lieberman is one of those “interesting” filmmakers. His work may not consistently qualify as “weird,” but he has a cult following. He makes movies that are twisted and satirical, as anyone who has seen Blue Sunshine (1977), Squirm (1976), Just Before Dawn (1981), Remote Control (1988), or Satan’s Little Helper (2004) can attest. “Day of the Living Me” collects his reminisces of the making of those films; although not in extreme detail, there’s enough to satisfy the casual reader or fan of the films.

The most interesting anecdotes concern Lieberman’s life and career outside of these films. He started as an editing assistant at (pre-Golan-Globus) Cannon Films, then took a stint in advertising,  which inspired his award winning short satire “The Ringer.” He also worked at Janus Films (before their partnership with the Criterion Collection), repurposing their titles into new product. The insider bits include entertaining tales of working with Rod Serling and Sidney Poitier narrating documentaries; early encounters with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman; coming up with the concept of the ad campaign for Ken Russell‘s Tommy (1975); and how providing help on selling Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) led to a night out with George Burns. There’s plenty more, but those anecdotes should be left for the reader to discover.

Lieberman is an excellent raconteur. Even at 192 pages, the book feels like a solid read; it’s like spending an informal evening with someone who you already suspected was interesting, only to find out they’re even more fascinating than you imagined.

SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

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This essay discusses the recently-released “Cannes Cut” of Richard Kelly‘s cult satire, Southland Tales. You may want to refresh yourself by reading Alice Stoehr’s original review of the theatrical cut.

Fifteen years have passed since Southland Tales‘ premiere, and more than a decade since our first review of the theatrical cut. At that time, the verdict was “Borderline Weird.” Is Southland Tales an indulgent mess? Yes it is. There’s no way around that, and that’s probably a deal-breaker for most. But the film has a solid structure that holds seemingly disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, rather than a mish-mash. The Cannes Cut supports that view (though there will be those who will disagree, of course).

Most of Southland Tales problems come from it’s ambition: it was a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the iPod Generation. Kelly has stated that his original conception was to make something like one of those madcap romp/chase movies that were staples of 60’s cinema (so maybe more of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the iPod Generation?) The script acquired more of political angle after 9/11, however.

Southland Tales is a 10 -13 episode Netflix show, conceived before Netflix was even a player, stuffed into a 2 1/2 hour running time. There’s so much information to absorb, and Kelly didn’t help himself by filming this as the last three parts of a six-part tale! You don’t need a lot of backstory to enjoy Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (the prequel trilogy is therefore pretty useless, to be honest). But for Southland Tales, that background is necessary to fully understand the plot. Ths backstory is present, but in the Cannes Cut it plays out mainly in dialog and mise en scène; the viewer is thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to sink or swim. The theatrical cut, by contrast, attempted to provide some context and clarification, with the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” montage sequences incorporating panels from the graphic novel prequel. Still, I would also argue that the information overload in the Cannes Cut is intentional, and part of the humor. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension attempts the same trick, though its overload is fairly straightforward in comparison to Southland Tales.

The Cannes cut is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, 158 min versus 145 min, and I think that it plays slightly better; but I also don’t mind getting thrown into the deep end. Some of the CGI-fx work was not yet complete when the film debuted at Cannes (mainly some sweetening for the zeppelin, and extra damage in L.A. from the insurrection). Some scenes were later shifted around in the theatrical cut.  The movie’s over-the-top element is more pronounced in Continue reading SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT