Tag Archives: Cult

CAPSULE: 1BR (2019)

DIRECTED BY: David Marmor

FEATURING: Nicole Bloom, Taylor Nichols, Giles Matthey, Celeste Sully, Clayton Hoff

PLOT: Sarah’s a newcomer to LA with shaky job prospects and no friends; after being accepted into an apartment complex, she finds out too late just how close-knit the community there actually is.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological thriller/horror movie about the dangers of community, which is a unique angle. However, the creepy unease that ensues isn’t anything we haven’t seen before (though typically in less-worthy examples).

COMMENTS: There is a lot to be said for making a good “genre” picture: a familiar story told well with a novel twist is hard to find. I am not insulting David Marmor and his crew when I say that 1BR is a story I’ve seen before—I’ve made it my business and pleasure to watch countless movies—because Marmor’s take on this particular story was ceaselessly well presented and kept me hooked from start to finish as I wondered how Sarah (Nicole Bloom), an imperiled newcomer to LA, would play her hand. In fact, of the five movies I watched the day I sat at 1BR‘s press screening, it’s the only title that I can presently recall.

Sarah is a young costume designer who is adrift in life, literally and metaphorically. Having recently left home and gone to LA, she has no real job prospects, no friends, and no home. She finds a job, of sorts: temping at a law firm. She gets a friend, of sorts: a vibrant co-worker named Lisa (a sassy Celeste Sully). She finds a home. Her initial joy at being accepted into an exclusive apartment complex, stuffed to the gills with apparent-neighborliness, turns into undefined ill-ease. What are those strange thumping noises at night? Who is writing threatening notes about her forbidden pet (her cat named “Giles”)? And what is it that’s so disconcerting about the two bulges on her flat-room wall? We know something is about to go wrong—and things go very wrong for young Sarah.

Plenty of psychological horror explores the fear of darkness and the dangers of isolation. 1BR swaps those for an unsettling hyper-illumination as it explores the even greater dangers of community. This group of smiling, happy people she’s ended up with are close-knit to the point of annihilating their individuality. Of the tenets practiced by the tenants, one struck me firmly. Though based on some West Coast cult figures, I was reminded of nothing so much as Maoist-era “struggle sessions.” This criticism of the group’s certainty of its correctness running against the individual’s shouldering of blame was pitch-perfect: there are prices for cohesion that are far too high.

I’ve had an interesting time discussing 1BR with other reviewers and I think I’ve done a fair job dissuading them of their initial dismissiveness. It would be overwhelming and ultimately unsatisfying, as well as impossible, if every movie we saw was Completely New. 1BR captures the suffocation of the coercive integration of a fully free individual into a monolithic social unit. Would-be social messiahs like Charles D. Ellerby (who devised the community’s creed) would do well to realize two things: you are never “always right,” and it takes all sorts to make a world. Ending on a note of very cautious optimism, Marmor’s debut gives us just enough hope that we can escape the doom of INGSOC-esque terror. We’d just better be prepared to run like hell.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marmor’s feature debut, which takes a new arrival to Hollywood and puts her in an apartment complex whose residents have scary plans for her, is a cousin of Rosemary’s Baby in which the occult is replaced by mere brainwashing and the eerie glamour of Central Park luxury decomposes into the generic architecture of a Los Angeles starter apartment.” -John DeFore, The Hollywood Report (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sergio Martino

FEATURING: , George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov, Nieves Navarro, Dominique Boschero, Carla Mancini

PLOT: Jane, a young lady haunted by her mother’s murder and her own traumatic miscarriage, seeks solace but ends up being sucked into a local Satanic cult; her problems then worsen.

Still from All the Colors of the Dark (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While All the Colors of the Dark is a tasty ham of a thriller and peer to the top films in that genre, it doesn’t get any weirder than it has to be to tell its story—which is actually a straightforward story, right down to its dream sequences and some comparatively tame Satanic rituals. Other reviews of this movie confuse “psychedelic” with “using a diffraction camera filter for a couple scenes.” If anything, Colors apes Alfred Hitchcock at his most spartan. A great thriller, but we watch weirder Italian movies around here before our first Chianti of the day.

COMMENTS: Hi, I’m Giallo Man! I saw the Giallo Signal in the sky and got here as soon as I could. Gotta tell you, I am so heavy into the giallo, I mainline it off the nightstand. If one of those Twilight Zone episodes came along where a character gets to wish themselves into a movie forever, I’d probably pick a giallo. And what a choice plum we have here! All the Colors of the Dark comes with a keen pedigree, directed by Sergio Martino, whose name you may recognize from The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) or perhaps Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)(#WhatATitle). That latter movie also shares the lead actress Edwige Fenech, whom you might recognize from Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). That’s before we get to garlic-bread-and-spaghetti western star George Hilton, a supporting cast which reads like a compilation of names from the best of Italian genre films, and filmed-in-England cinematography that could make the cover of an early Black Sabbath album. But best of all is the vintage year of 1972. The Exorcist came out in 1973, so that makes this one occult Euro-horror movie that’s guaranteed not to be a cheap Exorcist knockoff—because it wasn’t even released yet! It doesn’t even kiss much of the dirt that Rosemary’s Baby (1968) trod. I’m almost too excited to watch this.

After a lurid opening nightmare sequence with a blue-eyed stabbing killer in a beige trenchcoat—what, no black gloves?—we meet Jane, who has recently suffered a prematurely terminated pregnancy in a car crash. She lives in a London flat with her boyfriend Richard, who fusses over her while she is plagued by trauma from both this event and nightmares of her mother’s death when she was a child. Jane’s sister Barbara urges her to see a shrink, who is, you guessed it, not much help. The blue-eyed stabber from her nightmares stalks her every waking moment—but is she hallucinating? Jane, towing this head full of psychological baggage, meets her new neighbor, Mary, and the two become fast friends, while Richard and Barbara meet Continue reading CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972)

328. ARISE! THE SUBGENIUS MOVIE (1992)

AKA Arise! The Sub Genius VideoArise! SubGenius Recruitment Film #16

“Stand erect for your own abnormality, WISE UP! They’re out to get you. The ‘different’ are being silenced by a global conspiracy. WEIRD-MEN ARISE!”–The Book of the SubGenius : The Sacred Teachings of J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Rev. Cordt Holland, Rev. Ivan Stang

FEATURING: Dr. Howl (Hal Robbins), Rev. Ivan Stang (Douglass Smith), Pope David Meyer II, , Philo Drummond

PLOT: The video begins with five minutes of instructions (e.g., “do not operate a motor vehicle following viewing,” “the demons you may see during the initial hallucination sequence are not real.”) Then, we are introduced to the Church dogma, beginning with an alarmed news anchor who succinctly describes the Church as a cult led by J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, “a comic book character who speaks with aliens and worships money.” Amid mind-melting montages, taped sermons, country/punk “hymns,” and stock footage from old B-movies, the Church doctrine is gradually (if confusedly) revealed, including the concepts of “Slack,” “the Conspiracy,” “the Elder Gods,” and “X-day.”

Still from Arise! the Subgenius Movie (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Church of the SubGenius is a long-running satirical cult, a multimedia performance art circus comprising radio broadcasts, books, associated musical acts (“Doktor bands”), happenings (called “devivals”), pop-surreal art collages, a website, and this movie (with more to come). It is said to have been founded in Dallas TX in 1979 by Rev. Ivan Stang (pseudonym for Douglass Smith), Philo Drummond, and “Dr. X.” Stang quickly became the dominant figure in the movement, and, now in his mid-sixties, is still active in the Church.
  • The Church of the SubGenius is an offshoot of another fake religion, Discordianism, founded in 1963 by Greg Hill and Kerry Wendell Thornley. Discordianism’s most famous proponent is writer Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
  • Co-director/”editor in the spirit” Cordt Holland is a pop-art collagist whose work can be found here.
  • Much of the narration was taken from radio broadcasts from Stang’s “Hour of Slack” and text from The Book of the SubGenius. The environmentally-conscious Church continually recycles and remixes its material into new, mutated combinations.
  • The appearance of President George W. Bush in this 1992 movie was not a prophecy; the video was updated with new material in 2005. (VHS copies will have less material.)
  • Arise! was originally distributed by Polygram, until the Conspiracy caught on and squashed the plan. Reportedly, 800 rental copies were returned to the Church when Blockbuster video went “clean” and apparently deemed the videos deviant and offensive to Christians.
  • In 2017 a Kickstarter campaign to create a “serious” documentary about the history of the Church was successfully funded. Look for Slacking Towards Bethlehem: J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius to appear sometime in 2018 (we’ll alert you when the time comes).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s “Bob”‘s generic, white-bread, smug, pipe-sucking face, which is pixilated, melted, multilated, and pasted over other character’s heads throughout the movie.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pipe-smoking sex god “Bob”; the world ended on July 5, 1998; video evidence of “Bob”‘s martyrdom?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The world’s only absurdist recruitment video for the world’s largest absurdist cult, Arise! is too potent to play in Conspiracy theaters. It has circulated for over 25 years through that secret samizdat network known only as “the Internet.” Arise! will teach you about the genetic secret that makes you better than the “Normals” and about the long past/soon to come X-Day flying saucer apocalypse, puzzle you with the mysterious riddles posed by Old Testament alien JHVH-1, and give you the key to acquiring slack. All of this propaganda is scored to terribly annoying but hilarious music and illustrated with mind-melting psychedelic collages and subliminal images intended to put you into trance so that J.R. “Bob” Dobbs can insert the deeper, more esoteric meanings behind this lucrative cult directly into your forebrain and teach you to embrace your inner weirdness. Plus, live nude girls scattered throughout!


Excerpt from Arise! The SubGenius Movie

COMMENTS: I was lucky enough to discover the Church of the SubGenius near the very beginning. I’ve had Slack ever since. In 1986 I Continue reading 328. ARISE! THE SUBGENIUS MOVIE (1992)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ENDLESS (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple

PLOT: Brothers who escaped a cult a decade ago receive a videocassette with a strange message and return to their old compound, where it becomes clear that behind the friendly facade of their erstwhile “family” lurks a hazard beyond contemplation.

Still from The Endless (2017)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTThe Endless starts out a little creepy, with altogether too-friendly cult members interacting with the two runaways that defamed their group, before evolving into something skin-crawlingly foreboding. An unnamed, immaterial, but ever-present Entity generates a recurring circumstance found throughout Arcadia Park that puts a new spin on the idea of being “lost in time.”

COMMENTS: A moral found in The Endless is well reflected by the filmmaker’s methods: keep moving. Acting as a veritable two-man band, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead do virtually all the heavy lifting in this science fiction(ish)/horror(ish) drama (no “ish”): they direct, star, write, and do the cinematography. They also reach back and pull their previous features (Resolution and Spring) forward along with them in subtle ways. Paradoxically combining pinpoint focus with immense scope, Benson and Moorhead squeeze an infinity into one story comprised of, for lack of a better phrase, many narrative wheels.

An opening montage introduces us to Justin and Aaron Smith (Benson and Moorhead), two brothers barely making ends meet by doing dead-end work, in desperate need of a new car battery. Their rut is interrupted by a parcel containing a camcorder videotape with a message from their past. The “alien death cult” they escaped apparently didn’t pull the trigger. Their visit to their old digs at Arcadia Park starts well enough, but unnerving details begin to accumulate: multiple moons in the sky, hazy atmospheric barrier walls, and ominous rock pillars scattered not-so-randomly around the camp. As Aaron becomes more enamored with cult life, Justin’s aversion spikes. Diving to the base of a buoy in the camp’s lake, he finds two things underwater: another camcorder cassette, and something unimaginably horrific that he barely escapes. Despite this, Aaron decides to stay. As Justin begins his journey home, he stumbles across the true nature of the problem at Arcadia Park, and returns to save his brother.

One could use any number of adjectives to describe how wonderful this movie is—gripping, mysterious, surprising, funny. I’m handicapped because were I to provide any more details, the film’s twists would be revealed. Suffice it to say, temporal manipulation plays heavily in The Endless; the title itself, perhaps, provides a clue. Arcadia Park’s citizenry do not seem to have aged much since the brothers’ departure. Is it merely healthy country living? There’s a heavily locked cabin under the watchful eye of an Arcadian elder. Does it contain guns, or something far more troubling? And as for that mental patient who wandered on to the cult’s grounds, how real are her charcoal drawings of a monstrous nebula looming over the camp? Unfortunately, I can only pose questions to make hints. Surprise is key.

At its screening at the Fantasia Film Festival, there was a point where every audience member was dead-silent, and I’m convinced we were all holding our breath at the same time. Throughout the bizarre adventure of Justin and Aaron, there is a delicate balance of mundane, humorous, and menacing—with a palpable shift toward the latter as the movie progresses. The film’s world and people are self-contained (in more ways than one), and no line is out of place or without purpose. And then there’s the moral to The Endless, as I said before: keep moving. I’d suggest there is also a second moral here: never put off replacing a car battery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…The Endless rapidly develops from a mysterious, elliptical story about cult survivors and strained relationships into a much larger and stranger movie…”–Tasha Robinson, The Verge (festival screening)

CAPSULE: BIRDS OF NEPTUNE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Richter

FEATURING: Britt Harris, Molly Elizabeth Parker, Kurt Conroyd, Christian Blair

PLOT: Two sisters in Portland who have fallen into a pattern of stagnation and poor choices find their complacency upended when a manipulative man comes into their lives.

Still from Birds of Neptune (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the explanation for how the sisters got that way is a little on the peculiar side, the film itself plays it straight as an examination of two people who can’t move forward but refuse to look back until compelled to by an outside force.

COMMENTS: Fans of the satirical comedy show “Portlandia” have come to know the city as a place populated by extreme quirkiness and a measured indifference to social norms. Birds of Neptune, filmed in the city and featuring a local cast, plays it deadly serious, but it actually reinforces that same perception to outsiders about how life is lived in Stumptown.

Our leads absolutely play into the stereotype. Rachel is an experimental musician who is putting off both going to college and getting an abortion. (Kevin O’Connor and Erik Blood share credit for the score, which seems to include Rachel’s intriguing noodlings on the guitar). Big sister Mona, on the other hand, supports them both through her job as an exotic dancer with a preference for the avant-garde, including one routine in which she dresses like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Mona is harsh in assessing Rachel’s prospects, but also seems to be passive-aggressively standing in her way.

At the strip club Mona picks up Zach, a hipster-bearded psychology major with a penchant for nosing into the sisters’ business. He’s the one who discovers their dark secret—they were brought up in a Rajneesh-style cult laced with elements of Scientology, and still go through some of the motions of their unusual faith. This twist is probably the oddest element of the film, but there’s novelty in the fact that the film doesn’t condemn the girls for their mystical beliefs. In fact, their antagonist’s behavior manages to make a virtue of their ongoing commitment to a spiritual life that otherwise seems outwardly ridiculous and even dangerous.

We never learn precisely what Zach’s damage is, but he quickly makes it his mission to turn Mona against her sister, and then against her own past. This past includes an abandoned bathroom that is obviously the site of yet another family tragedy. Zach also seems determined to bed Rachel and destroy her budding friendship with a smitten 15-year old named Thor. (The film hangs a lampshade on that name at a critical moment in the film). In short, he’s a jerk. We get traces of this early on, as he snoops through the sisters’ house, but subtext becomes explicit as he purposely manipulates the two women, weakening the one while inadvertently spurring the other to take more definitive action.

In the final act, the film takes a very unexpected left turn into the realm of revenge thriller. It’s a curious choice from director Richter and co-screenwriter Flavia Rocha. If it’s intended to show how Rachel makes the crucial decision to move ahead with her life, that choice is already made. And if it’s meant to pull Mona out of her spiral into depression, it overlooks the fact that she is left alone at film’s end, now without direction herself. In any event, the characters are already developing steadily without the need for a sudden burst of violence to prod them along. It’s an illogical twist, which is weird, in a way.

Birds of Neptune is somewhat portentous, with lengthy shots of birds on branches and passing clouds serving as act breaks, and heavy dialogue scenes in which characters poke at each other in order to figure out each other’s “deal.” Ultimately, Birds of Neptune is a lot like its setting: laid-back, a little quirky, and getting where it wants to go at its own pace.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While Birds Of Neptune may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.”–Ben Umstead, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SAFE (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: , Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman

PLOT: A wealthy woman who finds herself suffering from nosebleeds, vomiting and other unexplained maladies is drawn into a New Age cult that promises to deliver her from her “environmental sickness.”

Still from Safe (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its protagonist’s non-specific malaise, Safe has an uneasy, hard-to-pin-down tone that’s subtly disquieting. Whatever is plaguing Carol, however, we aren’t comfortable with a final diagnosis of “weird.”

COMMENTS: Safe is a movie in two parts. In the first half, Carol, a bored housew—um, homemaker—sleepwalks through a wan, bourgeois existence. Sex with her affluent but uninspiring husband is unfulfilling, the furniture store inexplicably delivers the wrong couch, and post-aerobic conversations with her friends revolve largely around upcoming baby showers and fad fruit diets. Finally, the wrong kind of excitement enters her life: she begins suffering unexplained nosebleeds, vomiting, and wheezing panic attacks. The doctors are nonplussed by her vague symptoms, and allergy tests turn up negative (except for milk). Still, she’s hospitalized after suffering a seizure at a dry cleaners; she has something.

At this point, the film changes focus when Carol investigates a  health club flyer with the intriguing title, “are you allergic to the 20th century?” At first she attends lectures about “environmental sickness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity,” educates herself in the pseudo-scientific jargon about “body load” and “getting clear”; eventually, she declares herself a candidate for the expensive health retreat of Wrenwood, a “non-profit communal settlement dedicated to the healing individual.” Rather than getting better, however, Carol gets progressively sicklier the longer she stays within the carefully controlled atmosphere of the retreat: her body turns bony, her skin blotchy, she takes to lugging around an oxygen tank, and the slightest accidental sniff of fumes from a passing truck sends her into a wheezing spell. The psychobabble therapy—which insists that the patient’s illness is a result of negative emotions and of not loving themselves enough—keeps the residents in state of infantile dependency. Carol’s sickness actually gives her, for the first time in the movie, a sense of purpose and identity; her deterioration is, therefore, not surprising.

Haynes’ camera is deliberate; the film is shot mostly in clinical long shots, with very slow, ian pans. The soundtrack is low, rumbling synthetic drones, with vapid soft rock interludes. The feeling is of distant, gathering doom. The themes suggest layers of interpretation: the story could be a bourgeois satire, New Age satire, feminist allegory, AIDS allegory, or an existential nightmare manifesting itself as body horror. At Safe‘s heart are the subconscious concepts of “purity” and “contamination” (whether environmental, spiritual, or even demographic), and a warning about the danger of yearning for utopian homogeneity and withdrawal from the chaotic world. Ambiguous and creepy, Safe is a call to danger. In these gluten-wary times, Haynes’ message is still vital.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that [Haynes] will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.”–Todd McCarty, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who said “It features a great performance from Julianne Moore as a neurotic germophobe who becomes so paranoid in living in a modern industrialized society that she is shipped off to this naturalist colony where other neurotics wander around in these weird body suits that protect them from harmful pollutants in the air.” 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)