FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, Micha Bergese, Tusse Silberg, David Warner
PLOT: An adolescent girl lies in her bed, dreaming feverishly. In her dream, she lives in a medieval town menaced by wolves, with a grandmother who tells her frightful stories about werewolves and warns her to “stay on the path.” One day, she is traveling through the woods to her grandmother’s house, and she meets a dashing older man on the road…
The film is based on Angela Carter’s three “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired werewolf stories collected in “The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories.” In 1980 Carter adapted these stories into a radio play titled “The Company of Wolves,” which became the basis for her screenplay collaboration with director Neil Jordan. She published her version of the screenplay, which differs slightly from the filmed version (due to the fact that some sequences proved too costly to shoot) in the collection “The Curious Room.”
Other than the wraparound sequences, the entire movie was filmed on a soundstage.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie where men (repeatedly) turn into wolves, it’s surprising that the most startling image occurs in a quiet moment. Rosaleen climbs a tree, finds a stork’s nest, and finds a mirror and a vial of lipstick nestled alongside the eggs. She applies the lipstick, looks in the mirror, and the eggs crack open to reveal tiny human figurines.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Egg babies; wolves at a wedding; Angela Lansbury’s ceramic head
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An adolescent girl is lost in a fever dream inhabited by suave beast men and mysterious symbols that both frighten and thrill her. Angela Carter’s Freudian spin on fairy tales takes the sanitized version of Little Red Riding Hood and gives it fangs.
FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner
PLOT: A young girl moves from the city to a big house in the country. Her dreams mirror her dissociation from her surroundings and family, and an examination of her development as a person (and as a girl becoming a woman) follows through increasingly odd studies of gender and of the notion of the werewolf.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Neil Jordan’s second film is co-written by the sadly deceased Angela Carter, and her literary tralents are on full display here in an extremely layered and artful examination of gender and sexuality set against traditional folk tales such as Red Riding Hood. Ostensibly a single narrative, Company of Wolves loses itself in stories within stories, all held together as one long dream sequence. This film is quite a feverish and nuanced experience that is a must for inclusion on the List.
COMMENTS: Angela Carter was a fine writer, and anyone who is a fan of the written as well as the cinematic weird who hasn’t yet discovered her would be advised to do so. Company of Wolves draws on the traditions of spoken word narrative and folktales seen through a modern lens. Its source material is Carter’s short story collection “The Bloody Chamber,” which she herself described as an attempt “not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” What the viewer gets is a modern retelling of Red Riding Hood with all the sexual connotations not only intact but made explicit for a modern switched-on audience. More than just a straight fantasy and horror, The Company of Wolves is a study of the feminine psyche and its attitudes toward desire and familial responsibility, told through a rich narrative web. Perhaps the most indelible image is “the red wedding,” which gives “Game of Thrones” a run for it’s money in regards of worst end to a wedding possible. Grandma’s inevitable fate in this film takes a visually distinctive and surreal twist on the standard “what big teeth you have” story. One of Carter’s few forays into script writing, this film makes you wish her unique talents were more widely adapted for the big screen; furthermore, it showed Neil Jordan would be a talent to watch out for.
FEATURING: Christina von Blanc, Howard Vernon, Britt Nichols, Anne Libert, Jess Franco, Paul Muller
PLOT: A beautiful young girl who has been raised in boarding school in England returns to her fathers’ chateau in France after his death and is introduced to her bizarre (and horny) relatives.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The recently deceased (2013) Jesus Franco was a curious artiste: he had an idiosyncratic talent, but he was focused on churning out sex and horror movies so quickly (201 credited features spread over 56 years) that almost all his work inevitably has a half-baked feel about it. His occult obsessions, the value he affords imagery over reason, and the ramshackle nature of his methods tended to produce movies that are at least a little bit weird. Most of these products, however, are also shoddy, boring exercises in exploitation with only a few moments of inspiration. Virgin is, perhaps, his most sustained and atmospheric work, and if a Franco film deserves a place somewhere on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made, I have yet to come across a better candidate than this one.
COMMENTS: Christina, the titular virgin among the living dead, immediately tells us she “feels like she’s in a strange dream” as a mute chauffeur drives her to her deceased father’s chateau to meet her strange relatives. This is a not-too-subtle hint of what’s to come. Although many of Franco’s movies were incoherent and filled with hallucinatory scenes, Virgin is perhaps his most dreamlike film. It’s filled with strange moments, like a funeral where the family chants a mangled Latin hymn while a cousin paints her toenails and Uncle Howard accompanies them on organ, cigarette dangling from his mouth—the entire bunch is bored, as if this is something they do every Saturday night to pass the time. The other thing they do to pass time is have lots of sadomasochistic sex, including one couple who plays a lesbian-necrophile-vampire sex game with scissors. The female cast is sexy and attractive, but star Christina von Blanc is an absolutely gorgeous creature with big blue-grey eyes and porcelain skin. She’s not a completely vapid actress, either, and it’s a shame that she only has a small handful of appearances in softcore and exploitation films to her name.
There is a running thread about Christina’s relationship to her deceased father, whose ghost she encounters; and there are many vague warnings from others for her to leave this chateau, without anyone directly cluing her in on the fact that everyone inside is dead (that’s not really a spoiler, since it’s pretty much right there in the title). However, while there is a plot, Virgin is mostly a succession of mood pieces and odd scenes (e.g. Christina discovering bats in her bed, Christina wandering in on family members having perverted sex, Christina finding an ebony dildo sitting on her floor) that could almost be played in any order. Distributors took advantage of the episodic nature of the film to splice in extra footage as needed to create variant versions. A (rather lame) outdoor orgy scene was shot to make an even hotter version for the sex-film crowd. More notably, in the early 1980s vampire specialist Jean Rollin was hired to film a ten-minute hallucination with the dead rising from their graves, shot with an obvious stand-in wearing Christina’s white nightgown, to market the movie as a zombie film in order to capitalize on the fad for Dawn of the Dead ripoffs. (The result was retitled Zombie 4: A Virgin Among the Living Dead.) Shot in a similar but distinct occult style, with no dialogue and a much thicker soundtrack, Rollin’s addition literally plays like a dream-within-a-dream, and though purists may hate it, it actually adds to the patchwork surrealism of Franco’s movie. Still, the most unforgettable image comes from Franco himself: the hanged man, who appears to Christina several times, including a mystical moment where he glides backwards along a forest path as she advances towards him, mouth agape and eyes wide with wonder.
Redemption Video’s 2013 release may be titled “A Virgin Among the Living Dead,” but actually the primary version of the film they provide is the Christina, Princess of Eroticism cut. That is the edit that plays by default, and the one that includes a surprisingly serious and in-depth commentary track from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas. To view the better-known Virgin Among the Living Dead cut (which is substantially identical but includes the Rollin-shot sequences) you must select it from the extras. Also included as extras are the five minutes of “extra erotic footage” appended to early versions of the movie and three featurettes, one of which is an interview with Franco. Most of us old-timers never dreamed a day would come when we’d see a Criterion Collection quality edition of a Jess Franco movie, but here it is.
“Released by Paramount Pictures and utilizing top-tier talent like composer Alex North, cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and production designer Boris Leven, Shanks is an exceedingly strange film, a horror-fantasy punctuated by stretches of dialogue-free narrative, morbid black comedy, and occasional sentimentality.”–John M. Miller, TCM.com
PLOT: Malcolm Shanks is a talented mute puppeteer who lives with his shrewish step-sister and her alcoholic husband. A reclusive local scientist, who is working on a device that allows him to animate dead animal bodies with electrodes activated via remote control, hires Shanks as his assistant. Shanks’ puppeteering training makes him a natural at controlling the corpses; naturally, it is only a matter of time until he finds a human subject to experiment on.
This was the final film directed by B-movie gimmick-meister William Castle (Homicidal, Strait-Jacket). At the beginning of his career in the 1950s, Castle was known for his outrageous promotions such as “Emergo” (glow-in-the-dark skeletons that flew above the audience at a scary moment in House on Haunted Hill) and “Percepto” (electrified theater seats used to shock patrons’ rears in The Tingler).
Although famous mime Marcel Marceau played may bit parts in films (including a role in Barbarella and a notorious cameo in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie), this is his most substantial role as an actor. Marceau plays both Malcolm Shanks and the inventor Old Walker, often acting alongside himself. Marceau came to Hollywood searching for roles but found producers unwilling to hire him for parts other than cameos or appearances as his alter-ego, Bip the clown. “I was a great admirer of the silent-film comedians, Chaplin and Keaton, and I thought producers would recognize that I could also perform the same broad pathos comedy. But nothing happened,” he told an AP reporter in 1973. When Shanks came along, it “was exactly what I had been looking for.”
Marceau originally hoped Roman Polanski would direct and Castle would produce; he asked Castle to direct when told Polanski was unavailable. Castle reported that Marceau was a perfectionist, eccentric and difficult to work with, and didn’t seem to appreciate the practical aspects of shooting on a tight schedule and budget.
Although the movie was not generally well-received, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for Alex North’s eerie score. North reused and re-worked some of the compositions he wrote for 2001: A Space Odyssey that had been mothballed when Stanley Kubrick decided to use an all classical score.
Shanks had not been available on VHS or DVD until Olive Films’ 2013 release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The herky-jerky birthday cake cutting scene, when Shanks’ typically impeccable control over his remote control zombies breaks down for one brief moment for comic effect.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a movie about a mute puppeteer who learns to control dead bodies by remote control, and eventually harnesses that power to fight a biker gang. Calling itself “a grim fairy tale,” it’s a black comedy that uses silent movie aesthetics to tell a tale of reanimation of the dead. It stars Marcel Marceau, the world’s most famous mime, and is directed by William Castle, the world’s most famous B-move huckster. The chances that the results of this collaboration would not be weird approach zero; it’s like nothing else out there.
PLOT: A tourist finds herself staying overnight at a Spanish chateau managed by a butler who is the spitting image of Satan as pictured on a local fresco.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A mildly surreal horror, Lisa might make for interesting Halloween watching for the patient, but it’s too slow-paced with too little payoff to be counted among the greatest weird movies.
COMMENTS: “The entire setting is so right for a tall tale of gloom and perdition,” says one of the guests at a banquet as a manservant played by Telly Savalas serves her slices of rare meat. “We could make one up as we go along.” Given the almost random way the script unfolds, you might suspect that this line of dialogue is a confession rather than a throwaway bit of dinner conversation. It’s not always clear whether the frequent lapses of logic in Lisa and the Devil are meant to be part and parcel of the unsettling atmosphere, or are merely the result of lazy, indifferent screenwriting. After one of their party is found murdered, the owner of the estate in the middle of nowhere suggests to the rest of the party stranded there that there is no need to call the police—and they all accept that view calmly without offering much in the way of a counter-argument. Niggling unanswered questions proliferate: How do the chauffeur and the wife find time for a lovemaking liaison when he’s supposed to be fixing the car? Why is Lisa terrified of a pocketwatch she sees on a table? Whether these minor story issues add to the film’s dream logic or merely frustrate you as you try to settle on a context for this fright tale may determine how you react to the movie. Lisa builds to a perverse and spooky third act as the shameful secrets of the chateau are slowly brought to light, but the first two thirds of the movie are slow and often confusing. The main living denizens of the villa, a blind mother and her fey son, are an intense couple, but top-billed Savalas (who sucks on his trademark lollipop here) makes by far the biggest impression as a slyly diabolical butler. He’s not conventionally sinister or overtly threatening, but like most servants he knows more about the secret workings of the chateau than his masters do, and his blasé glances and mysterious smiles suggest a man whose subservience is an ill-fitting mask for a deeper purpose. As Lisa, star Elke Sommer, on the other hand, is little more than a blank pretty face—not her fault, as the script gives her nothing to do other than gasp, scream and fall unconscious. Lisa has no history and no reason is given for her straying from her tour group, and she is swept along by events with a bewildered expression, offering no resistance. Passivity is her only real character trait. Her lack of dialogue stands out: other characters divulge shocking confessions to her, and she has nothing to say in response. It’s not clear if her silence is a deliberate choice to make her a mysterious tabula rasa, or whether the character is simply underwritten. If it was a conscious decision, I’m not sure the gamble pays off; we are given little reason to care about the fate of this ambiguous protagonist. On the plus side, Bava’s films are always visually luscious, and Lisa is no exception. The dusty Spanish town and the aristocratic villa give him plenty of lush color to work with, and in her mod short blue skirt and mint green blazer, Sommer looks perfectly out of place romping through these classical vistas. She’s as dislocated in her fashion as she is in her psychology. A flashback/dream sequence set in a sylvan glade supplies a visual highlight, and foreshadows a later scene of a nude Sommer waking in a similar-looking ruins. Savalas’ offhand conversations with his collection of life-sized dummies and an ending that induces shivers despite being somewhat obvious are other memorable bits in this oft-odd spook story. The movie has assets: Savalas, the cinematography, and a few moments of thrilling disorientation. At its best it plays like the dream of a mad ghost; but overall this sepulchral tale is too lifeless for a general recommendation. Fans of slow-paced atmospheric horror may find it a worth taking a chance on, though.
Lisa and the Devil was a flop in Italy and was not picked up for American distribution. Producer Alfredo Leone then decided to try to salvage the movie by re-cutting it and shooting new footage with Sommer and Robert Alda (as a priest) to turn the film into an Exorcist clone; the resulting mess was released in the States as The House of Exorcism. It flopped. The 2012 Kino Classics release contains both versions of the film.