Tag Archives: Cult

LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

“A cult of weird, horrible people who gather beautiful women only to deface them with a burning hand!”–original poster tagline for Manos, the Hands of Fate

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Harold P. Warren, John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree

PLOT: After making a wrong turn on a family vacation, Mike and Maggie and their daughter Debbie find themselves lost in the Texas desert. As night falls they discover a lodge and its mysterious caretaker Torgo, who reluctantly agrees to let the family stay the night. As the night wears on the Master and his wives awake, while Torgo develops an obsession with Maggie.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Hal Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, had a yen to become an actor, and met and befriended screenwriter Stirling Silliphant when the latter was in El Paso scouting locations for the television series “Route 66.” Warren made a bet with Silliphant that he could make his own horror movie. He scribbled out the initial outline to Manos on a napkin at a coffee shop.
  • Manos was filmed with a hand-wound 16mm camera that could only shoot 32 seconds of footage at a time. There was no live sound and all dialogue was later dubbed in by the principal male actors (Warren, Reynolds and Neyman) and one uncredited actress voicing all the female roles.
  • John Reynolds, who played Torgo, was a heavy drug user who was often high on LSD on set. He committed suicide months after shooting concluded, before Manos‘ debut.
  • Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, almost never screened on television, only gaining notoriety after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993. (Manos became one of the show’s most popular episodes).
  • For most of its history Manos was available only in scratchy second generation prints with visible defects; many fans believe that the murky visuals add to the film’s outsider appeal. In 2001, cameraman Benjamin Solovey found a pristine work print of the movie  and crowdfunded a digital restoration of the movie, which he released on Blu-ray (via Synapse films).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a brief moment when all of Manos‘ bizarre characters share the frame at the same time. Arms outstretched, as always, to display the scarlet fingers lining the inside of his coal-black cloak, the Master points to a shivering Torgo, while two of his nightgown-clad wives pirouette towards him and drag him onto the stone altar, his massive knees pointing towards the nighttime sky. In her review of the film’s opening night, the local El Paso film critic refers to this as the scene where Torgo is “massaged to death.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Torgo’s knees; wives’ nightgown brawl; who the heck is ‘Manos’?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing, strange dubbing, and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny west Texas wasteland that’s similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.


Clip from Manos: the Hands of Fate

COMMENTS: Manos: the Hands of Fate demonstrates an important Continue reading 223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

CAPSULE: THE MASTER (2012)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson

FEATURING: , Philip Seymour Hoffman

PLOT: Failing to fit into society after returning from World War II, a libidinous alcoholic sailor falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader (modeled on Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard).

Still from The Master (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only a single hallucination scene and some impressionistic storytelling that flirts with the oneiric gives us the slightest opening to even discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest bit of Oscar bait as a weird film. And yet, even though we’re as pickled in weirdness as The Master‘s sloshed sailor Freddie is in solvent-boosted booze, we’re conscious of how ridiculously strange this confounding film appears to average audiences. From geriatric walkouts to bloggers complaining the film is “weird for the sake of being weird” to the infallibly wrong Rex Reed declaring it “juvenile and superficial trash” in a class with Mulholland Drive and Being John Malkovich, The Master may be worthy of weirdophiles notice more because it’s annoying the right people than because of its inherent oddness.

COMMENTS: The Master isn’t an exposé of the origins of Scientology; that would be a mere barrel-fishing expedition. The tenets propounded by Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master (played with a carefully portioned-out charisma by Philip Seymour Hoffman) are an intellectual MacGuffin. Dramatically, the film centers around the bond between the uncomfortably avuncular Dodd and lost soul Freddie—the co-dependent relationship between Master and cultist, in which the need to be believed in is as desperate as the need to believe. Thematically, the movie is about man’s quixotic need to find meaning and purpose in existence, about a human emptiness that is filled by ritual and community, not rational deliberation. Anderson assumes the audience will understand The Cause’s teachings are hokum, and in case we don’t get it, a character explains, “You know he’s making it up as he goes along, right?” By taking the absurdity of the cult’s dogma as a given, Anderson shifts the emphasis from an examination of the truth or falsity of particular doctrines to the more provocative question of whether even blatantly ridiculous mumbo-jumbo can nonetheless be morally uplifting—and whether such salvation is worth the price. Joaquin Phoenix knows exactly what Anderson needs from the role, and his tormented, twitchy performance as a drunken lecher trapped in his own animalistic nature will be remembered come awards time. It’s a daring portrayal, because with his dimwitted stares, heed-banging tantrums and exaggerated agonies, Phoenix risks looking hammy and ridiculous. Freddie, who spikes his drinks with paint thinner because vodka has lost its kick, makes love to a sand castle in the shape of a woman, and masturbates into the ocean, is the most moving kind of character: one who’s repulsive, both physically and spiritually, but with whom we sympathize because his suffering and loneliness strikes a universal chord. He also stands as a challenge, or even a reproach, to Dodd’s faith—which this Master shares with conventional religions—that “man is not an animal.” Hoffman’s controlled performance, the super-ego to Phoenix’ id, is a delight in its own right, although his role mainly serves to highlight Freddie’s mania. Dodd is no simple charlatan, but a surprisingly congenial and even affectionate egotist who, as depicted here, sincerely believes his chicanery will better mankind. “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master,” he tells Freddie in the film’s key scene, “be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” That “any master” is a brilliant addendum, an unexpectedly selfless expression of love from Dodd (the equivalent of “even if you don’t get help from me, get help from someone”) and another indicator that the movie’s concerns go deeper than the peculiar quirks of the Cause. Ultimately, The Master‘s dogma is humanistic, tragic and romantic: the faith that a depraved freedom is preferable to a sick salvation.

The Master was shot in 65mm film, a lush but expensive format that today is typically only used for IMAX films. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of theaters around that are still have 70mm projectors capable of projecting the film in the way it was meant to be seen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strange and complicated story it has to tell exists beyond the reach of doubt or verification. The cumulative artifice on display is beautiful — camera movements that elicit an involuntary gasp, passages in Jonny Greenwood’s score that raise the hair on the back of your neck, feats of acting that defy comprehension — but all of it has been marshaled in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief. “–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Harold P. Warren

FEATURING: John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren

PLOT:  Lost in the desert, a vacationing family seeks lodging from Torgo, who takes care of the place while the Master is away.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With The Horror of Spider Island and The Beast of Yucca Flats already certified weird, it’s hard to argue that any movie could be ruled off the List solely because it was “too bad.”  But as painful as those movies can be to watch, the dreadfully dull and incompetent Manos is another kettle of stinky fish entirely.  Spider Island and Yucca Flats developed slight cult followings on their own bizarre merits, but for decades 1966’s Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, only gaining notice after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993.  Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a few weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny desert that’s somewhat similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.  The question is, is that weird undercurrent enough to overcome Manos‘ dead air?

COMMENTS:  Abraham pleaded with God to save the city of Sodom from eradication via brimstone, if he could find only a few good men inside the city limits; similarly, I won’t condemn Manos as a completely worthless endeavor if I can ferret out just a few good things about it.  A brief recital of Manos‘ cinematic sins, however, makes the judgment look dire for this microbudget brainchild of a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas. The issues begin with the film stock itself: Manos was shot with a hand-wound 16 mm camera that could only capture thirty seconds of footage at a time.  The camera was probably intended to be used by families making silent vacation films, and the results look exactly like home movies from the 1960s, complete with barely adequate, dull coloration and hazy definition.  Since the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)