Tag Archives: Folklore

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: A divine white mare gives birth to a son, the Tree-Shaker, who is destined to destroy three dragons in the Underworld who are holding captive three mythical princesses.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Marcell Jankovics puts the limitless possibilities of animation on display for this mythic tale. Abstraction and form combine to move the story along in a way that would be stylistically impossible with any other medium, all infused with the most vibrant palette I’ve ever seen in a movie. Son of the White Mare‘s epic nature and ancient roots are perfectly represented by the timeless feel of the nonstop delights to the eyes.

COMMENTS: This movie, I’ve been told, has been hovering around the site’s periphery for quite a while now, with us forebearing discussion until we could watch a high-quality, non-YouTube posting of Jankovics’ iconic masterpiece. With the 4K, re-mastered version from Arbelos Film which screened at the tail-end of this year’s Fantasia Festival, that time has come. Some quick research suggests that a disc release has not yet been determined, but considering the three years of work put into the project by a dedicated multi-national team (under the guidance of Marcell Jankovics himself), it’s bound to made available. Some day soon. Like in early 2020. Hopefully.

In the meantime, let me try to regale you with my poor words what Jankovics and his crew put together almost forty years ago. The film begins with a flash, as a pregnant white horse flees across the screen from a horde of nasty, jagged pursuers. Finding protection in the Earth Tree, she bears a human son, an eager boy who grows to become known as “Tree-Shaker.” He is told the story of his father’s downfall and, after finding his brothers (“Stone-Crumbler” and “Iron Temperer”), he looks for the entrance to the Underworld after outsmarting the Seven Colored Gnome by stealing his beard. With his brothers’ help he forges the beard into a mighty weapon that aids him as he seeks to free the kingdom’s princesses trapped in castles, guarded jealously by twisted versions of their former beaus.

It would be next to impossible to describe how magnificent the animation is. Much of its motion defies Euclidean geometry. To get the vibe, I recommend an image search. But even beyond its presentation, its narrative is well worth a mention. The time-tested methods of storytelling—tasks and goals in groups of three; heroes of impossible skill and origins; ultimate good fighting ultimate evil—are all present. This is not surprising; what took me aback (in a good way) was the fusion of this ancient technique with the interwoven warnings against modernity. Of the three multi-headed dragons fought by Tree-Shaker, two are manifestations of modern man: a seven-headed, dozen-gunned tank beast and a truly menacing, twelve-headed, ever-shifting skyscraper monster. Obviously there is a message here, one that slipped passed the well-practiced Communist censors of the day.

If you’ve patiently waited to watch this movie, please continue to do so. The impending release will be of a print that doesn’t look like it has aged at all. I know that I can get very excited about movies that others find ho-hum (or worse); but, for those of you who’ve seen some version of Son of the White Mare, and to those many others who have doubtless heard its praises sung on high, it lives up to whatever expectations of wonderment you could possibly harbor. Whoever gets the task of certifying this gem, I hope they’re up to it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The art style is incredible: pastel and clashing colours are everywhere and are used to paint very trippy and beautiful art. The animation is fluid, with shapes morphing into others and back seamlessly – a road becomes a snake, the gap between two faces changes into a goblet – but these must be seen to grant them their full justice.”–Simon Brand, PopOptiq

CAPSULE: 8 (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Harold Holscher

FEATURING: Tshamano Sebe, Keita Luna, Inge Beckmann, Chris April

PLOT: A father’s desperation opens him to a demon, dooming him to gather souls; carrying the remnants of his departed daughter in a sack, he is compelled to collect one final payment.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST8 is a beautiful film that combines elements of South African folklore with Victorian-style scares. As an atypical example of of the horror genre, its only weirdness is how impressively accessible Holscher makes the exotic supernaturality feel onscreen.

COMMENTS: The creative mind has long held a fascination for me, and my experiences at Fantasia have allowed me to casually research this phenomenon. Mingling with dozens of filmmakers over the years, I am always pleased to see the energy they have and their defiance against the odds. This holds particularly true when it comes to new directors presenting their full-blown visions to the world for the first time. It was with this in mind that I approached Harold Hölscher’s debut feature, 8. I spoke with the writer/director before its international premiere, and felt his energy; I felt this same energy in the theater last night.

Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) bears his heavy spiritual burden in a very literal way in the form of a large leather sack that accompanies him wherever he travels. This weight pins him to the holy ground where he is forced to roam: a plantation on which the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. He is a shaman, formerly a healer, and has paid a terrible price for the privilege of carrying his load. When he befriends the new owners of the plantation, he shares his spiritual knowledge with Mary (Keita Luna), the plucky young niece of the previous owner’s descendants. As their bond strengthens, Lazarus’ bond with his own daughter frays—but the demon that possesses her and the father demands Mary’s soul.

I anticipated that this movie would amaze me, so I mean it as no criticism that it “merely” met my expectations. Among the things it has going for it is that is features two character archetypes I always enjoy. The first is personified by Mary’s character. She’s an unflappable, inquisitive girl who always seeks knowledge and lets nothing frighten her if it’s new and amazing. Lazarus embodies the second archetype I cannot get enough of: the burdened wise man, tortured but calm. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Tshamano Sebe’s performance carries the film. While there would be no story without Lazarus, there could be no Lazarus without Sebe. He is alternately powerful and peaceful, often within the same scene. Lazarus’ ritual of extracting souls from the dying, despite its grim purpose, feels wholly natural, and strangely believable.

A lurking criticism I heard from others about the film was that it was perhaps “too mainstream.” There is merit to that sentiment, but I am disinclined to view it as a handicap. By framing something as exotic as the folklore and spiritualistic rites of pre-colonial South Africa in a familiar way, Harold Holscher can share its wondrousness with that many more people. At the same time, he has proven that, despite being a neophyte, he has the narrative and technical skills to succeed in the world of cinematic storytelling. I am certain that 8, his freshman piece, will open doors for him, and I look forward to following this storyteller’s career.

Also see our audio interview with director Harold Holshcer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mesmerizing film, one where everyone on screen works to steal the viewer away to a place filled with trauma.” -Brendan Frye, CGM (festival screening)

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)

NOVEMBER (2017)

November has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Comments are closed on this review. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Aided by witchcraft, a love triangle unfolds in an Estonian village in the 19th Century.Still from November (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s only February, and November is already our first contender for weirdest movie of 2018. Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.

COMMENTS: At one point young Hans, listening to magical tales from an unlikely source, proclaims “Unbelievable stories! They’re so enchanting.” There is an overarching plot in November, but it takes a back seat to the enchanting digressions. Set in a 19th century that feels like the depths of the Dark Ages (aside from a few anachronisms like muskets and tobacco), November unspools like a compendium of folk legends. Beginning on November 1, All Souls Day, when the dead join their descendants for a light meal, the story takes us on a tour of peasant beliefs and traditions, with a few mini-tales recounted inside of the main plot: stories of mysterious women seeking passage across the river, of effete lovers mooning in a gondola. The dreamlike monochrome cinematography and a doom-laden musical score nurtures the magical atmosphere, while the griminess of the characters’ hygiene and the baseness of their morals adds a contrasting level of realism that makes this alternate Estonia strangely believable.

The most exotic feature of this magical realist landscape are the kratts, automatons made from whatever farm implements (or, as we see later, other materials) the peasants have lying around, powered by souls that must be purchased from the Devil. Before the opening credits we meet a three-legged monster cobbled together out of broomsticks, metal rods, an axe, a sickle, and a skull; it’s capable of airlifting a cow, and develops a nasty temper when it’s not assigned enough work. The kratts may be the most uniquely Estonian element here, but folkloric magic is an everyday part of these character’s lives: diabolic meetings at midnight crossroads, lupine transformations on the full moon, disgustingly compiled love potions, and a bizarre scheme to trick the plague into skipping over the village all play parts in the story. Persistent pagan beliefs dominate Christian ones, leading to absurdly humorous situations. The villagers see Jesus as a powerful deity who can be gamed for their personal gain, and find non-Church sanctioned uses for consecrated hosts. They’ve adapted the magical elements of Christianity to their own purposes, but haven’t internalized its ethics: they are a barbaric, mean, and backstabbing lot of louts, continually scheming and stealing from both their doting German overlords and from each other. This depraved condition may be imposed on them by the necessity of their hardscrabble existence and servitude. Young love, however, remains a beacon of pure idealism, even in this bleak world; only proving, perhaps, that some ancient superstitions remain with us even today.

Frequently astounding, with a new fabulous wrinkle every ten minutes, November will enchant fans of weird cinema, though its downbeat nature and lack of likable characters may make it a hard sell to your straight cinema friends. Cold, but lovely, like a frosty November morn, its fascinations lie mostly on the surface, but what a surface it is.

November opens in New York this Friday (Feb. 23), expands to Los Angeles on March 2nd, and will play major cities in the U.S. throughout the Spring. See the official site for a list of screenings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fantastical, strange, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and just the right amount of weird to give us this strange fairy tale that we feel it’s a world we might have inhabited in a past life.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

Yume; Dreams

“I dream my paintings, then I paint my dreams.”–Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Akira Kurosawa

FEATURING: Akira Terao

PLOT: Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa lenses eight short films inspired by his own dreams. The main character, played by two child actors and one adult, is simply credited as “I.” The dreams involve a fox wedding, living doll spirits, a snow witch, a platoon of dead soldiers, Vincent van Gogh, the explosion of Mt. Fuji, a weeping demon, and a happy funeral.

Still from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • One of the most awarded filmmakers in cinema history, Akira Kurosawa made Dreams at the age of 80. He had not made a movie since 1985’s Ran. He completed two features after Dreams before finally retiring in 1993 and dying in 1998.
  • Late in his life, Kurosawa had difficulty raising money in Japan because, despite winning awards overseas, his movies did not make a lot of money in his home country. After reading the script for Dreams, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas convinced Warner Brothers to fund the film. Spielberg served as executive producer and Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic provided the visual effects.
  • Ishiro Honda (Godzilla) served as “creative consultant” and is said to have directed some sequences uncredited, as well as supplying the inspiration for “The Tunnel” segment (which was similar to a story Honda had written but never filmed),
  • Kurosawa personally chose to play Vincent Van Gogh because the director’s energy matched his conception of Van Gogh’s passionate nature.
  • A final ninth dream, which would have involved an outbreak of world peace, was scrapped because Kurosawa envisioned legions of extras and it would have been too expensive to film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “I” wandering through a series of Van Gogh paintings, crossing over painted bridges and stepping around painted trees.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing dolls; Martin Van Gogh; demon under a dandelion

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When one of the world’s greatest filmmakers deigns to tell us of his dreams, we should sit quietly and listen. If we do, we will be privileged to witness ghostly spirit pageants, movie screens transformed into impressionist canvases splotched by gobs of paint, giant dandelions, and horned demons weeping beside pools of blood.  We have much to learn.


Original trailer for Dreams

COMMENTS: The title is a lie. The visions here are not literal recreations of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams. Although each segment grows Continue reading 260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

249. BLANCANIEVES (2012)

Snow White

Blancanieves combines the characteristic language of documentary, a typical feature of Spanish realist cinema, with other devices from the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum (fades, magical connections, etc.), typical of silent film – which in some cases call to mind Luis Buñuel’s surrealist aesthetic. These paradoxical styles help to create a visual atmosphere which is appropriate to the somewhat sinister tale by the Brothers Grimm which serves as the pretext of the film.”–Jorge Latorre

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Pablo Berger

FEATURING: Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Sofía Oria, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sergio Dorado

PLOT: Antonio Villalta is a famous bullfighter with a pregnant wife who is distracted in the ring and gored by a bull. The accident leaves him wheelchair-bound, his wife dies giving birth to his daughter, and he marries his nurse Encarna, a cruel and manipulative sociopath who only wants him for his fortune. Encarna at first keeps Carmen, Antonio’s daughter, as a servant girl and virtual slave on the estate, but orders her killed when she is found visiting her father against her stepmothers will; Carmen escapes and is rescued by a band of dwarfs who travel Spain performing a novelty bullfighting act.

Still from Blancanieves (2102)

BACKGROUND:

  • The folk tale “Snow White” was first set down in print by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.
  • Dwarf matadors (known as “charlotada”), who would warm up the crowd before the main event, were a real phenomenon in Spanish bullfighting.
  • Writer/director Pablo Berger cites ‘s Freaks (1932) as one of his main inspirations for the script.
  • Blancanieves was in development for eight years before filming began. This means that it was conceived before The Artist, the revivalist silent film that won the Academy Award in 2011.
  • The film won 10 Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar), including Best Film and Best Actress for villainess Maribel Verdú. Spain submitted it to the Academy Awards but it was not one of the five foreign film finalists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pablo Berger’s film utilizes simple tricks that would have been available to filmmakers in the 1920s, including frequent use of superimposed double images. The most effective of these is the shadowy skull that flashes over the skin of the apple as the wicked stepmother poisons it (using a syringe), while her intended victim basks in the crowd’s adulatory applause in the background, out of focus.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rooster cam; transvestite bullfighting dwarf; crying corpse

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “I have this idea for a Snow White adaptation set among Spanish bullfighters in the 1920s, but how can I make it weird? I know! I’ll make it an expressionistic silent film, and make one of the dwarfs a transvestite and give the wicked stepmother a penchant for S&M!” Well done, Pablo Berger.


Original U.S. release trailer for Blancanieves

COMMENTS: As the early career of Guy Maddin reminds us, silent Continue reading 249. BLANCANIEVES (2012)

CAPSULE: JUG FACE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chad Crawford Kinkle

FEATURING:, Sean Bridgers, Sean Young, 

PLOT: In an insular rural community, a malevolent pit periodically demands the sacrifice of whoever’s face appears on a jug.

Still from Jug Face (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The notion of a supernatural hole in the ground that demands human sacrifice is just strange enough to put Jug Face on our radar, but once you buy into the outlandish premise, the remainder of the film is a standard horror outing, not a weird film per se. This under-the-radar release is still recommended for fans of offbeat, atmospheric horror.

COMMENTS: Beginning with animated folk art titles illustrating a bloody primeval ritual, Jug Face sets out its mood, mythology and themes with extreme efficiency. In the opening scene, teenage Ada very nearly engages in illicit intercourse in the sight of the mysterious Pit from the title sequence, beginning a fearful association between that hole in the ground and female sexuality that will only get queasier as the movie progresses. (Later, Jug Face will subject us to the most disturbing of gynecological exams). The movie is set in a mythical Southern Gothic enclave where moonshine is both the sole export and a sacrament, where outsiders are shunned, and where the occasional human sacrifice is tolerated as a harsh necessity of the land. The metaphysics of the Pit are never explained (we learn nothing more about it than that it “wants what it wants”), but the devotions it demands are revealed in detail. Falling into a trance, a simple-minded potter shapes the clay into the face of the Pit’s next victim, who is dispatched according to traditions handed down from generation to generation. If the process is subverted and the Pit doesn’t get what it wants, things get hairy for the locals. The idea of a Pit-worshiping cult hiding out somewhere in a remote mountain holler may sound hard to buy, but Jug Face‘s quiet conviction puts the far-fetched material over. The detailed script has an answer for almost every question you might have—even questions you hadn’t thought to ask. The direction is confident and straightforward. Most of all, the cast is dedicated to bringing this odd community to life. A hick nerd with duct tape holding his glasses together, Dawai (Sean Bridgers) is effective as the cult’s mouth-breathing chosen potter. Indie-horror stalwart Sustin (Larry Fessenden) leads the redneck sect, but his wife Loriss holds the power in their household. Played by Sean Young (where’s she been lately?), Loriss is a small role with a big impact; this chain-smoking harridan may just be enforcing tribal norms, but she takes a sadistic pleasure in lording her petty power over her helpless children. Although Young has vicious fun with her role, Lauren Ashley Carter, as the young daughter Ada, haunted by sexual guilt, carries the film. Looking like a young Christina Ricci, permanently clad in her one dowdy grey frock, Ada’s normal teenage urges towards experimentation and rebellion put her at odds with her community. She conveys a sympathetic torment as she struggles between self-preservation and loyalty to the only moral code she’s ever known. She’s a sinner, but one we can identify with. Playing out with grim fatalism, like a cross between Winter’s Bone and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Jug Face creates a unique folk mythology and is filled with an creepy sense of backwoods doom. It’s a promising debut for writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle.

As of this writing, Jug Face is available for viewing via video-on-demand outlets. It receives a limited theatrical run in August and is scheduled to show up on DVD and Blu-ray in October.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an insanely bizarre and creepy slow-burn with a lot of good ideas, and precise execution.”–Brad Miska, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)