Tag Archives: Fable

CAPSULE: THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Terrance Zdunich, , Briana Evigan, Jessica Lowndes, Dayton Callie

PLOT: A suicide, a jewel thief, and a thug’s girlfriend die and find themselves at an afterlife circus run by the Devil; he reads the stories of their sins retold as fables, which they re-enact to musical accompaniment supplied by carnies.

Still from The Devil's Carnival (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Devil’s Carnival is a lot like director Darren Lynn Bousman’s previous horror musical effort, Repo: The Genetic Opera, only on a smaller scale. If that one didn’t make it onto the List, then logically this one shouldn’t, either.

COMMENTS: Hell is eternal musical theater! I knew it! The Devil’s Carnival looks like refugees from a circus took over unused sets from Moulin Rouge. Hell’s color scheme is candy apple red and hot dog mustard yellow, and all the demons have mime-white faces with black and red designs equally inspired by medieval harlequins and KISS. The plot to this musical is delightfully warped, in more ways than one. It involves suicide, thievery, and women in masochistic relationships, but it also benefits from a wild narrative that veers between reality, fantasy, and song and dance numbers at a whim. Fittingly, none of the denizens of the carnival seem the slightest bit surprised by any of it; the three hellbound souls receiving their poetic punishments wonder why they’re suddenly at a state fair designed by David Lynch for all of five seconds before they start accepting the dream at face value. I always like it when a movie script takes on too much and mixes its metaphors. Carnival starts off as Dante by way of Cirque du Soleil, then, one-third of the way in, after each of the three stories is already in progress, the Devil starts reading a book of Aesop’s fables which illustrate the sins (adding to the confusion, the last section, “The Devil’s Due,” doesn’t even refer to Aesop—the quote’s from from Shakespeare and the plot’s from nowhere in particular). Along with the three fables, we also get a backstage peek at the Devil’s lieutenant casting the night’s morality plays and a subplot about the Lucifer-God rivalry, all shoehorned in around a dozen songs in a movie that’s only an hour long. The script’s a mess, but I don’t mean that as a criticism: the overabundance of ideas and references in The Devil’s Carnival gives the entire enterprise a loose and crazy feeling that’s appropriate and appealing. The costume and set design is superlative, and the demonic hoofers—the Hobo Clown, the Painted Doll, and plastic-haired greaser Scorpion—are all a morbid hoot. Where The Devil’s Carnival loses me is with the songs. They are impressively staged and consistently performed in a Weimar-era German cabaret style. The Hobo Clown, ragged hat extended for alms, croons a demented doggerel silhouetted by footlights while a topless woman is whipped in the background (like all of Carnival, this is a surprisingly PG-13 rendition of some very dark material). But the melodies, while appropriately carnivalesque, aren’t memorable, and the libretto can’t match the ambition of the mise-en-scene. There’s too much repetition, and more than once the lyrics fall back on the cheap trick of incorporating children’s nursery rhymes to cop a little irony. Songs like “Kiss the Girls,” with a man menaced by a gang of sexy clowns in Bozo’s of Hollywood lingerie, look great, but make little sense. The lip-syncing is also frequently off, providing another distraction. Ivan L. Moody, a veteran of several minor metal bands with a surprisingly melodious baritone, gives the best performance; but the best conceived number is “Prick,” a love badly sung by a painted waif to a bullfrog that makes clever use of the double meaning in the title. Still, there is nothing here that you’d want to put on your I-Pod (Repo cultists, many of whom bought this soundtrack on the release date without having heard a note, may naturally disagree). Divorced from their presentations, the songs are all competent but forgettable, and, like its predecessor Genetic Opera, it’s that lack of memorable tunes that keeps The Devil’s Carnival from making the leap to the next artistic level. If Bousman could just borrow the talents of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, or even , for just a week sometime, he might make something really magical. The film is part of a planned series, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Carnival may not have blown me away, but the best compliment I can give it as that it has me looking forward to the next installment—and, it makes me consider looking backward to reassess Repo.

While Bousman continues to make horror movies like Mother’s Day within the Hollywood system, The Devil’s Carnival cements his credibility as a cult filmmaker and suggests he’s dedicated to the more interesting, less-marketable horror-musical concept. The mid-range production values, cable TV-friendly naughtiness, cliffhanger ending and hour-long length of Carnival make it look like a pilot for an HBO series, although there’s no evidence it was ever intended for the small screen. The marketing of the film, which was self-financed by Bousman and partner Terrance Zdunich (who wrote the script and plays the Devil), is innovative: a VOD/Netflix streaming release, supplemented by a collector’s edition DVD/Blu-ray (limited to 6660 copies) and a “carnival road tour.” Hopefully this nontraditional distribution strategy will work and allow the pair to retain their artistic independence by selling directly to the fans.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dismiss Repo and Carnival as weird musicals for weird people if you like, but there’s always room for a filmmaker who treats his ticket-buyers well and delivers something sort of … unsafe.”–Scott Weinberg, FearNet (contemporaneous)

103. BLOOD TEA AND RED STRING (2006)

“The doll character had been working its way into my drawings since 1990.  A lot of these things evolved from drawings.  The drawing is coming from the subconscious, really, so you don’t really know why, or say ‘why am I drawing it’?”–Christiane Cegavske on the DVD commentary to Blood Tea and Red String

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christiane Cegavske

FEATURING: With one minor exception, all characters are silent animated puppets

PLOT:  A group of aristocratic white mice commission rodentlike creatures with beaks (called the “Creatures Who Dwell Under the Oak”) to create a doll for them, but once the puppet is fashioned the Creatures refuse to give it up; instead, they revere it and sew an egg they find floating in a creek inside its torso.  The mice steal the doll and take it to their lair, so the Creatures set out on a journey to recover it.  Along the way they meet a frog sorcerer and a spider with a human face, and everything changes when the egg inside the doll hatches.

Still from Blood Tea and Red String (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film took 13 years to make, with Cegavske animating perhaps 10 seconds a day.  Many of the models and effects used show up in the director’s 1992 short Blood and Sunflowers.
  • Cegavske intends for Blood Tea and Red String to be part of a trilogy, and in 2011 she announced the second part of the project, titled Seed in the Sand.  She estimates this installment will take five years to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Blood Tea is bizarre throughout, and many will be attracted to the psychedelic splashiness of the sequence where the Oak Dwellers eat hallucinogenic berries and see morphing pink and green leaf patterns overlaid on the courtyard garden.  For my money, though, things are at the weirdest when we climb inside the dark mouse hole and watch the well-dressed vermin pour bloody tea onto the lips of the lifeless doll while their skull-headed pet raven looks on.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A dialogue-free stop-motion animated fable done in the style of Jan


Original trailer for Blood Tea and Red String

Svankmajer, but with a darkly feminine spin, Blood Tea and Red String gently folds surrealism into its fairy tale structure to create a weirdly compelling world.  It’s an inverted Alice, told from the perspective of mutant rodents, depraved white mice, and mystical frogs.

COMMENTS:  Artist Christiane Cegavske had been living with the haunting creatures of Blood Continue reading 103. BLOOD TEA AND RED STRING (2006)

79. DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

“SOCRATES: Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets… men [pass] along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

GLAUCON: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

SOCRATES: Like ourselves…”–Plato, The Republic, Book VII

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Christos Stergioglou, , Hristos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, Michele Valley, Anna Kalaitzidou

PLOT: A Father and Mother raise their three children—two girls and a boy, aged somewhere between their late teens to twenties—in an isolated country estate with no knowledge of the outside world.  The children spend their days playing odd games, engaging in strange family rituals, or learning new words with incorrect definitions; they are taught that “sea” means an armchair, a “motorway” is a strong wind, and so on.  The one outsider they know of is Christina, who Father brings in weekly to satisfy Son’s sexual urges; inevitably, she discloses facts about the outside world that disrupt the family’s artificial harmony.

Still from Dogtooth (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the “Un Certain Regard” prize (which recognizes works that are either “innovative or different”) at Cannes in 2009.
  • Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011 (only the fifth Greek film so honored).
  • According to writer/director Lanthimos, the three actors who played the children got into character by inventing games (like the “endurance” game the kids in the film play) to pass the time.
  • Mary Tsoni, who plays the younger daughter, was not an actress prior to this role; she was a singer in a band.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dogtooth is a movie made more from concepts than from imagery.  Most likely, the scene that makes the biggest impression is the one that best encapsulates the family’s strange rituals.  To celebrate their parent’s wedding anniversary, the two girls perform an awkward, shuffling dance, as invented by two children who have no knowledge of choreography, while their brother accompanies them on guitar.  After the younger girl bows out, the rebellious older one begins throwing her body around with bizarre, manic abandon, until her parents object to this display of individuality.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beginning with the conceit that the meanings of ordinary words have been changed, Dogtooth presents us with an unsettling vision of an “ordinary” family where the basic rules of social behavior have all been unpredictably altered, for reasons that can only be guessed at.


Original trailer for Dogtooth [Kynodontas]

COMMENTS: “Dogs are like clay, and our job here is to mold them,” the dog trainer explains to Continue reading 79. DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

CAPSULE: HOME (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Ursula Meier

FEATURING: , Olivier Gourmet, Madeleine Budd, Kacey Mottet Klein, Adélaïde Leroux

PLOT:  The idyllic existence of an isolated family is shattered by the re-opening of an abandoned highway that runs through their front yard.

Still from Home (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the absurd rot at its core, Home is structurally sound; but it’s too low-key and lacking in zing to be counted among the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  There’s not much plot to Home—a highway opens in a family’s front yard, the fumes and endless noise bug them, and they eventually put cinder blocks and cement over their windows to keep the outside world out. The idea could have packed a compact wallop in a short; but here, there’s ninety minutes to fill up. Promising first time director Ursula Meier saturates the empty spaces with acting; thankfully, she has Isabelle Huppert and a pro cast on her side. Home will work best for those who find the carefully observed intimate details of other people’s family lives fascinating, but the leisurely pacing will make this thin allegory something of a grind for others. Early scenes establish the bucolic Eden that’s about to be paved over: the family plays hockey in the abandoned highway, watches TV on a couch outdoors, and bathes together. (Meier makes a major point of the family’s unselfconscious, unsexual nudity; Huppert is the only one in the film who keeps her clothes on). External pressure on the happy family arrives when the highway reopens (allowing Meier the opportunity for a nicely absurd parody of the “incredibly specific news broadcast” movie cliché: the only radio station the family receives focuses exclusively and obsessively on the new thoroughfare, tracking the progress of the first motorist as if he were a national celebrity). Amusingly, at first the brood attempts to go about its normal routines despite the intrusion of the motorway; college-age Judith continues her full-time bikini sunbathing career (to the delight of passing truckers), and the two younger kids dodge cars as they cross the highway on their way to school each morning. Eventually the pressure starts to get to the family unit; the incessant freeway noise causes sleepless nights, and fatalistic middle child Marion takes to wearing a homemade gas mask and filling her younger brother’s head with tales of how the gasoline fumes will stunt his growth. Father Michel (Gourmet) reasonably suggests relocation, but mother Marthe (Huppert) digs in to preserve the homestead. Under stress the family’s behavior takes a turn for the bizarre (especially Mom’s). When they decide to wall up the house, the heat inside becomes stifling and the air stale; they spend most of their time sleeping, lacking the strength to do more. The film’s symbolism is open-ended, which can be a very good thing, but which works better when coupled with a stronger narrative. Critics seem to be focusing on the happy pastoral family vs. poisonous industrial society theme and the environmentalist subtext, but there’s also a metaphor about growing up at work here. At each stage of the story, the tone reflects one of the three children’s perceptions of family life. At first there is a childish innocence and fun to the home, with nothing of too much importance existing outside it. The outside world (represented by the highway) begins to encroach on the family sanctuary and penetrate its four walls, reflecting the anxiety and disillusionment of the early teen years. Finally, the home becomes a stifling prison run by madmen whose walls must be torn down in order to become an adult.

This Home is often confused with Home (2008), a mother-daughter cancer drama, and Home (2009), an environmental documentary narrated by Glenn Close. I have no theory to offer as to why the filmmakers gave their French language film shot in Bulgaria an English title.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the engaging, darkly funny, surreal story of what happens when people who have thrived by keeping civilization at a safe distance suddenly find themselves pushed right back into its headlights… an absurdist pit stop on the order of ‘Bagdad Café,’ but with more edge and less charm.”–Janice Page, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

SHORT: RABBIT (2005)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Run Wrake

PLOT: A young girl finds a magical dancing idol when she cuts open a rabbit.

COMMENTS: Run Wrake’s Rabbit is a beautifully frightening, and award-winning, parable about greed that taps into the ancient, grim fairy tale tradition of placing children in harm’s way to illustrate a cautionary point. Rabbit, however, turns that motif on it’s head by making the children the villains. With it’s storybook graphics and text labels hovering over background objects as if it were an animated reading primer, Rabbit creates an eight-minute universe we’ve never seen before, one which is so unflinchingly original it can never be recreated. Like a talking fish out of Grimm’s fairy tales, the golden idol is one of those mysterious folklore creatures with it’s own weird rules and a slow-boiling intolerance for human folly that inevitably leads to tragedy for those unwise enough to abuse its patience. The irony of using innocent looking but thoroughly rapacious children in this sordid scenario isn’t done for shock value alone—although it is shocking, delightfully so—but rather speaks to our deepest suspicions about human nature: that we’re corrupt from birth, and must unlearn our instinctive childish badness.

Although it’s no Saw VI, Rabbit contains some quick and absurd violence and gore. If you find any depiction of darling little boys and girls with ponytails and ruddy cheeks slaughtering innocent woodland creatures for personal gain disturbing, no matter how tastefully done,then you’ll probably want to stay away from this one!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an animated version of a Dick & Jane primer that takes a scarily surreal turn.”–Noel Murray, Onion A.V. Club (compilation DVD)

C APSULE: ABSURDISTAN (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kristyna Malérová, Max Mauff

PLOT: A young couple’s about-to-be-consummated love is threatened when the women of their village organize a sex strike against the lazy townsmen who will not fix the pipe that brings water to the hamlet.

Absurdistan

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disqualified for false advertising in the title: there’s nothing absurdist in this shamelessly romantic comedy. Still, it’s an offbeat and often beautiful fable that’s kilometers and kilometers away from the competition in this most formulaic of genres. A good date night movie for people who aren’t idiots.

COMMENTS: Absurdistan takes place in a central Asian village, once famed among merchants traveling the Silk Road for its beautiful women and virile menfolk, but now forgotten by the modern world. Unburdened by cell phones, social networking sites and other conveniences of the modern age, the villagers have reverted to simpler ways—which is to say, they think mainly about sex. And as long as the men are getting it, they have little incentive to do anything else, since the women take up the duties of baking, herding, and farming out of necessity. They grow too lazy even to fix the town’s water pipe, preferring enduring drought and living in filth to the unacceptable prospect of working up a good sweat. Although sex in Absurdistan is used as a weapon, overall, the village’s attitude towards the dirty deed is refreshingly frank and seems innocent and healthy compared to our own: its importance is freely acknowledged and respected, and not hidden from the children like a shameful secret. This perspective gives the movie a tastefully lusty charm that’s reminiscent of its inspiration, Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.”

The most unique aspect of Absurdistan is the scarcity of dialogue; background info is given via voiceover, but very few words are actually spoken by the characters (and except for the heroine’s name, no words at all are spoken by the male lead). This is partly due to circumstance; few in the internationally assembled cast could speak properly accented Russian. More importantly, as an artistic choice it gives the film an aura of timelessness and universality. With no verbal exchanges, the comedy is delivered silent-movie style, and isn’t always exactly subtle: there’s a bit where a man stuffs two watermelons into a brassiere in order to infiltrate the women’s camp. None of the gags are gut-busting, but along with the top-notch desert cinematography, exotic music, and assured storytelling, it’s enough to keep the audience well-charmed until the climax.

Director/co-writer Veit Helmer doesn’t skimp on the sentiment—after completing their quest to save the parched village, the young lovers are granted not one but two fairy tale happy endings with heart-melting, magical images. But the hearts and flowers aren’t slopped on simply because the target demographic expects it. In the service of an original, well-told story, Helmer earns the right to be a bit sappy, and we earn the right to enjoy it.

Helmer also helmed 1999’s Tuvalu, which features a similar streamlined storyline with minimal dialogue, but adds experimental film-tinting and more surrealistic touches and absurd humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre yet charming plot, and the overall ensemble insanity — like Amélie meets Dogville, though not as compelling as either — is curiously entertaining.”–Chris Bilton, Eye Weekly

BORDERLINE WEIRD: OLDBOY (2003)

Must See

DIRECTED BY

FEATURINGMin-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

PLOT:  A drunk Dae-su Oh is seized off the streets and imprisoned for years in a private apartment without any explanation; when he is just as mysteriously released, his former captor toys with him, giving him clues to help Dae-su track him down and, more importantly, discover why he was imprisoned in the first place.

Still from Oldboy (2003)


WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Oldboy is certainly extreme, certainly stylized, certainly cultish, but it may be a stretch to call it “weird.” What gives it some weird cred is the high implausibility of the fabulous plot, which is more concerned with intriguing us through its psychological truth than its believability. Watching Oldboy leads to the same punched-in-the-psychic-gut feeling as the best weird movies do. It’s that effect that keeps it on the borderline.

COMMENTS: Oldboy spins its improbable yarn with stylized realism. There are a few weirdish digressions: when a stir-crazy Dae-su hallucinates that ants are crawling under his skin (an ant also briefly appears to Mi-do in a mirror image phantasm); a scene where, instead of showing the avenger graphically bashing in his adversary’s head, the director freezes frame and draws a dotted line on the screen from Dae-su’s claw hammer to the villain’s noggin; and a brilliantly impossible kung fu battle in a narrow corridor that seems imported from a completely different movie. Part of what makes this Chan-wook’s most successful work is that neither these cinematic stylistic touches, nor the improbably convoluted plot, cause our brows to permanently freeze in a skeptical furrow, or totally overwhelm the sense that this fantastic story could have happened essentially the way he tells it. There are maybe a dozen points in the film where if Dae-su chooses to follow path X rather than path Y, the entire plot collapses; there are another half-dozen plot contrivances that could only be accomplished by a cartoon supervillain with unlimited resources. But our logical objections never rise to the fore while we’re watching the film. Oldboy seems “real” because the actors are able to convey an emotional realism, because Chan-wook creates legitimate suspense that makes us want to believe so we’re fully invested when we discover what happens next, and because, like a Shakespearean tragedy, the story rings psychologically true. On one level, Oldboy is a simple and elegant dramatization of the self-annihilating power of revenge, inflicted with unflinching emotional brutality on the poor hero. What gives the film extra intensity is that we sense it’s not the villain, but the dread hand of Fate manipulating and battering Dae-su. The force that torments him is too relentless and omnipotent to be human, to cruel and senseless to be karma.

Every successful foreign film is the subject of a Hollywood remake rumor, and Oldboy is no exception. What is just as bizarre as Oldboy‘s plot contrivances are the names linked to the remake (actually an adaptation of the same source material, to avoid quibbles): Steven Speilberg and Will Smith. If even Hollywood’s most daring talent would inevitably chicken out and make Oldboy pointless by sanitizing its unflinching psychic brutality, what will these two squeaky-clean icons of normality do to it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once real and completely unreal, familiar and deeply strange, violent and comically absurd… It says something when you come out of a film as weird and fantastical as ‘Oldboy’ and feel that you’ve experienced something truly authentic. I just don’t know what. I can’t think of anything to compare it to.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporary)