Tag Archives: Expressionism

61. KWAIDAN (1964)

AKA Kaidan; Ghost Stories

“A hundred thoughts suggested by the book might be written down, but most of them would begin and end with this fact of strangeness… many of the stories are about women and children,–the lovely materials from which the best fairy tales of the world have been woven. They too are strange, these Japanese maidens and wives and keen-eyed, dark-haired girls and boys; they are like us and yet not like us; and the sky and the hills and the flowers are all different from ours… in these delicate, transparent, ghostly sketches of a world unreal to us, there is a haunting sense of spiritual reality.”–from the original introduction to the folk tale collection “Kwaidan”

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Masaki Kobayashi

FEATURING: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, , , Kan’emon Nakamura

PLOT: An anthology film telling four Japanese folk tales centered around ghosts or nature spirits.  An ambitious samurai leaves his faithful but poor wife for a rich new one, and finds himself haunted by regret over his desertion.  A winter spirit spares the life of a young woodcutter, on one condition.  A clan of ghosts demand a blind minstrel play the tale of their tragedy for them night after night.  The final story tells of a guard who sees an apparition in a bowl of water.

Still from Kwaidan (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The four episodes were adapted from Lafciado Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales (the two middle pieces are from his 1903 volume entitled “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”).  Hearn was born Greek, educated in Ireland, and spent time as a journalist in the United States (causing a scandal by marrying a black woman in Cincinnati, which was a crime at the time).  He later became a foreign correspondent in Japan and was naturalized as a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo.
  • Hearn offered “Weird Tales” as one possible translation of the Japanese word Kwaidan.
  • Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (at that time, the second most prestigious prize after the Palme D’Or).  It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, but lost to the Czech war drama The Shop on Main Street [Obchod na korze].
  • The episode “The Woman of the Snow” was (unwisely) trimmed from the original American theatrical release in order to cut the runtime from three hours to just over two hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s hard to top the image of the minstrel Hoichi covered (almost) from head to toe in holy Buddhist characters or the ghostly court of samurai, it’s the expressionistic set of “The Woman in the Snow”—with it’s constellations of warped watching eyeballs set in a deep blue sky—that makes the eeriest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Kwaidan illustrates the rule that, the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to make the List. Although on the surface it’s just a collection of bare-bones ghost stories, in telling these tales director Kobayashi wisely jettisons reality in favor of a stylized, expressionistic, visually poetic aesthetic that gently detaches the viewer from everyday life and floats him into an ancient spirit world that seems simultaneously to have never and always existed.


Original Trailer for Kwaidan

COMMENTS: In Kwaidan‘s opening credits black, blue, red and purple inks swirl around in Continue reading 61. KWAIDAN (1964)

EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Edgar G. Ulmer has a cult reputation, particularly in France. The late British film critic, Leslie Halliwell, believed that reputation to be wholly undeserved, since most of Ulmer’s films ranged from B to Z status. Ulmer did not begin that way when, in 1934, he was handed “complete freedom” in an A (A-) production, teaming, for the first time, Universal Studio’s reigning horror stars Bela Lugosi and in the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired The Black Cat. The resulting film, and Ulmer’s affair with his employer’s wife, quickly ended a promising top-notch studio career almost as quickly as it began.

This first Karloff/Lugosi teaming was also their best. That is because of their eight collaborations this was their only joint-starring project directed by a visionary auteur. In The Black Cat Lugosi was cast as protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, and Karloff as antagonist Hjalmer Poelzig. In the original, uncut film, Lugosi’s hero does some less than heroic things. Enough of Vitus’ sinister quality remains that Lugosi gives us a hero we are never quite comfortable with. Under Ulmer’s direction, Lugosi’s performance is superb, an extreme rarity for this actor. As good as Lugosi is, Karloff is even better and, as unpopular as it may be to say now, Karloff was always a far better actor than his co-star.

Ulmer’s “complete freedom” came to a screeching halt when universal execs saw the filmed footage and script. Lugosi’s hero rapes the heroine, the heroine occasionally turns into a black cat, and Karloff’s Poelzig is skinned alive and last seen crawling on the floor with his skin hanging from his body as Lugosi’s mad hero laughs hysterically. All of these scenes were cut from the film and, par the course at that time, were destroyed. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the scenes were shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.
Still from The Black Cat (1934)
Regardless, what remains of The Black Cat is a flawed, baroque masterpiece, intoxicating to watch and simultaneously frustrating, especially in light of Ulmer’s original intent. Lugosi’s Hungarian psychiatrist Vitus is traveling by train, and he is on a journey of revenge and retaliation. Vitus meets two newlyweds—American novelist Peter Alison and his wife Joan (played by David Manners and Jaqueline Wells)—who are as bland a 30s couple as one is likely to find. Lugosi sees something in the young woman Joan and touches her hair as she sleeps. The Hays Code be damned, it’s an erotic, Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)

DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped with authority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane. No surprises there. Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint-by-numbers set. Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’s creator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and excommunicated him for life.

Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made.  That honor probably goes to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.

Rarely do classic films live up to the hype. Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film. It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue. Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic. Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.

Then, in the early 1980’s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute.  When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.

Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it.  By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.

Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde.  The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts.  This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.

Still from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid.  But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense.  Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the Continue reading DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

Dr. Caligari has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY: [AKA Rinse Dream]

FEATURING:  Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin

PLOT:  The granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) performs illicit neurological experiments on patients in her asylum, focusing especially on a nymphomaniac and a shock-therapy addicted cannibal.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: This is a good time to explain that the category “Borderline Weird” does not refer solely to a movie’s inherent strangeness, but to whether it’s both weird and effective enough to rank among the most recommended weird movies ever made. No doubt about it, Dr. Caligari is about as weird as they come, and would make a list of “weirdest movies regardless of quality” on first pass. The problem is that this movie is held back by amateurism in the production (especially the acting) and a lack of focus in the story.  I wouldn’t feel ashamed elevating it onto the official List of 366 films, but I wouldn’t want it to take the place of a more serious and professionally produced film, either, so Dr. Caligari will be locked up in the Borderline Weird asylum until I figure out what to do with this curious case.

COMMENTS: The origin and history of Dr. Caligari is almost as strange as the film itself. Director Stephen Sayadian is better known as Rinse Dream, the creator of arty avant-garde hardcore porn films with ambitions of crossing over into the mainstream. His Cafe Flesh (1982), the story of a post-apoclayptic future where most of the population consists of “sex negatives” forced to obtain erotic fulfillment vicariously by watching “sex positives” perform, was generally well-reviewed and very nearly the crossover hit Sayadian craved. It and was released in theaters in an R-rated version for those with tender sensibilities. Seven years later, the director again attempted to return to the mainstream with this, his only work aimed directly at an audience not wearing raincoats and sunglasses.  Intended as a midnight movie, Dr. Caligari had some limited success in LA theaters, and then gained a small but devoted following when released on video.

Dr. Caligari never got a proper DVD release, however, and fell out of the public eye; most Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

ROSCOE ARBUCKLE’S “HE DID AND HE DIDN’T” (1916)

Hidden deep in the recesses of early cinema lies a rarely seen, obscure gem that might be described as something resembling a Max Beckman Moving Picture.

he_did_and_he_didntRoscoe Arbuckle’s 1916 He Did and He Didn’t is a humorous, expressionistic nightmare which not only calls to mind the texture and atmosphere of Max Beckman expressionist paintings, but also, in heroine Mabel Normand, evokes Edvard Munch as well.

Arbuckle had been shifting away from the frantic style of the Mack Sennett factory towards more character driven comedy, and had taken over writing and directing his own films and making features long before Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd followed suit.

He Did and He Didn’t uniquely stands out even among the later Arbuckle films, which is saying quite a bit as Arbuckle was innovative both as a performer and director.  His perfectionism was well known and he might very well have earned the crown for king of multiple takes, although the gracefulness he displayed on both sides of the camera never even remotely hints at such perfectionist standards.

Arbuckle has been widely credited for influencing such artists as Charlie Chaplin,  Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy and Curly Howard.  His distinct on-screen persona was normally that of a country bumpkin and ladies man.

Naturally, every great screen personality needs an equally distinct nemesis.  Chaplin had Eric Campbell, Langdon had Vernon Dent, Arbuckle had his Al St. John.  The two appeared together in numerous films and, later, Arbuckle directed St. John in Curses (1925) and Bridge Wives (1932).  Lanky, bad teeth, bad hair and bad clothes, St. John was Arbuckle’s perfect country bumpkin foil in The Waiter’s Ball (1916), Coney Island (1917) and the recently restored Love (1919), in which Arbuckle donned drag, as he frequently did (Good Night Nurse, an imaginative nightmare fantasy with Keaton, St. John and Arbuckle Continue reading ROSCOE ARBUCKLE’S “HE DID AND HE DIDN’T” (1916)

5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

AKA Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [dubbed and edited version]

“I love images that make me dream, but I don’t like someone dreaming for me.” –Georges Franju

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Georges Franju

FEATURING: Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli

PLOT:  The face of the daughter of a brilliant plastic surgeon is horrifically scarred in an automobile accident. The doctor makes her pretend to be dead until she can be cured; she floats about his Gothic mansion wearing an expressionless face mask, accompanied by the howling of the dogs her father keeps in pens to perform skin grafting experiments on. When several pretty young girls go missing, the police and the girl’s fiancé start to suspect the doctor.
eyes_without_a_face

BACKGROUND:

  • Eyes Without a Face was adapted for film by the famous screenwriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also co-wrote Les Diaboliques (1954) and Vertigo (1958), from a novel by Jean Redon.
  • Director Georges Franju has stated that he was told to avoid blood (so as not to upset the French censors), animal cruelty (so as not to upset the English censors), and mad scientists (to avoid offending the German censors). Remarkably, all three of these elements appear in the final product, but the film did not run into censorship problems.
  • The film did poorly on its initial release, partly because the surgical scene was so shocking and gruesome for its day. It was released in the US, in a dubbed and slightly edited version, as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, paired on a double bill with the strange but now nearly-forgotten exploitation flick The Manster.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The mask itself, the heart of the film. There are several other worthy candidates, including the haunting final scene with Christiane surrounded by freed birds. Also noteworthy is the facial transplant scene, which is in some ways the centerpiece of this film (and comes almost exactly at the midpoint). An anesthetized woman’s face is peeled off like the skin of a grape, in surprisingly graphic detail.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At least until the very final scene, Eyes Without a Face is not obviously weird at all–in fact, much of Franju’s accomplishment is in making the fabulous, far-fetched story seems coldly clinical and real. But what gives the movie it’s staying power and makes it get under your skin is the strength of the simple images, particularly Christiane’s blank mask, which hides everything: both the horrors of her past, now written on her face in scar tissue, and her current motivations. The imagery seems to reach far beyond the confines of the story and speak to something deeper–but what? For this reason, the most common critical adjective used in conjunction with the film has been “poetic,” and the director Franju is most often compared to is Jean Cocteau.


Original French trailer for Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face)

COMMENTS: Eyes without a Face is a sinister variation on the Frankenstein theme that Continue reading 5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)