Tag Archives: Ghost

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”

Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to  delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.

Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.

Still from Curse of the Cat People (1944)Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.

First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.

Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.

The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.

RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks ‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.

The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”

Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.

Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).

LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , Louis Negin, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Udo Kier

PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is

Still from Keyhole (2011)

hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.

COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWIXT (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, Alden Ehrenreich, David Paymer, Don Novello, Anthony Fusco, Tom Waits

PLOT: Horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is in decline, hacking out formulaic product and going on book tours to nowhere places, like the town of Swan Valley. The local sheriff (Bruce Dern) tells him about an unsolved massacre that took place in the town years ago, suggesting a collaboration on a book, which Hall doesn’t take seriously—until he starts dreaming of a young girl, V (Elle Fanning), who may be connected with the murders, and may be either a ghost or a vampire; and of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who becomes a spiritual muse the deeper Hall delves into the mystery.

Still from Twixt (2011)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What gives the film an aura of weirdness is its visual style, elements of which recall earlier Coppola films (mainly the more experimental ones like Rumble Fish and One from the Heart), along with the elements of autobiography that thread through the film. While it may be a bit too early to declare this as Essential Coppola, there are rewards to be found here for the adventurous moviegoer.

COMMENTS: Twixt has had a tortured time getting out to an audience; originally scheduled for release in late 2011 after several festival screenings and Comic Con hype, the movie has been released in France and England and only recently made its domestic premiere in San Francisco, with no concrete word (as of this writing) as to wider release in the U.S. Which is not that surprising, considering that most of the domestic reviews pretty much ripped the film to shreds. To a certain extent, they have a point—most of those reviews have commented on the murkiness of the narrative, which Coppola has stated had its origins in a dream. Most of those reviewers probably think that Coppola’s best creative days are behind him, or that he needs to return to more commercial fare to be ‘relevant’ again. It’s probably very telling that what North American distributors and critics have seen as a problem, Europe has eagerly embraced (especially France, where critics have acclaimed the film).

Twixt is a messy concoction, and for most audiences who are used to storylines where everything is clearly presented and all the twistedness will eventually be straightened out by the time the end credits roll, it won’t be a fun ride. Coppola describes it as “one part Gothic Romance, one part personal film and one part the kind of horror film I began my career with,” which is a pretty packed sandwich—not everything will fit neatly there. However, those concerned with neatness will conveniently overlook good performances by Kilmer, Dern and Chapin and some intriguing autobiographical references.

Twixt is available on R2 DVD and Blu-Ray. Again, no word as of yet when it will be available on R1 disc.

UPDATE 12/28/2015: In 2013, Twixt was released on R1 Blu-Ray by 20th Century Fox with excellent picture quality and sound. It’s light on extras, but what’s included is very interesting – a documentary on the making of the film shot by Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, prior to her feature film debut with Palo Alto (2014).

Twixt official site

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily [Coppola’s] silliest work… a mishmash of absurd horror tropes with a gush of blood…”–Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

 

 

 

 

 

 

CAPSULE: PULSE (2001)

AKA Kairo

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki

PLOT: A computer expert’s suicide is the first in a series of mysterious events and disappearances that leave Tokyo, and the world, depopulated; is a website that dials up people on its own and asks if they want to meet a ghost responsible?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy and weirder than the average scare flick, but Pulse is tuned to the standard turn of the millennium J-horror wavelength.  It’s a good watch for fear fans, and a seminal one for Asian New Wave horror followers, but it doesn’t go that extra weird mile.  Kurosawa’s ambiguous horror/detective procedural Cure (1997) makes for a better bizarre candidate.

COMMENTS: Pulse slips so quietly from reality to strangeness that you hardly recognize the transition; one minute, you’re watching its characters going about their daily lives, dealing with unexpected suicides and alarming computer viruses, and the next minute the world is almost deserted and ruled by ghosts.  The theme of this horror movie is not really fear but loneliness, and how technology fosters isolation more than cures it.  The film is not too subtle in delivering that message.  A plague of ghosts seems to spread via a computer website; one character immediately diagnoses a low-tech character’s sudden interest in the Internet as a desire to connect with his fellow man; a spirit tells the protagonist “death was eternal loneliness” from inside a foil-lined room.  Even scenes occurring before people start disappearing en masse are shot in disconcertingly deserted urban settings, on empty streets and buses and in lonely apartments.  Characters discuss the difficulty humans have making deep and lasting connections, while simultaneously hungering, struggling, and failing to form those bonds with each other.  Those who encounter one of the malevolent spirits in Pulse go through a syndrome (ghost traumatic stress disorder?) that involves locking themselves inside a room alone and sealing the door with red tape.  What the movie intends to say on the metaphorical level is very clear; what’s a little more confused is what’s supposed to be happening on the literal level.  We get half-baked exposition regarding the mechanics of the ghost world, but the spirits’ malevolent motives aren’t ever clearly explained, and it’s not at all certain how all the pieces are supposed to fit together.  If, as one sage tells us, the dead are now leaking into our world because theirs has exceeded its capacity, how do they benefit from convincing the living to kill themselves?  Wouldn’t that just worsen their overpopulation problem?  If the spirits of the dead have no place to go, shouldn’t the world be overrun with ghostly presences, rather than empty?  What purpose in setting up the spectral website that dials up users on its own—other than to scare a technophobic audience?  The movie glosses over answers to these questions, which does make it feel like a weirder endeavor; in this case, however, it seems the material might benefit from a fairer stab at clarity.  But Kiyoshi (no relation to Akira) Kuroswa is all about atmosphere, and he’s an expert at conjuring it.  The long lonely narrative spaces are broken up by several memorable moments, including glitchy technostrangeness involving a metaphysically malfunctioning webcam with a distorting lens, bizarre broadcast television interference from the Beyond, people who melt into black smudges on the wall, and a genuinely frightening trip inside “The Forbidden Room” to discuss matters of mortality with the death’s head who dwells therein.  Mood, not logic or even philosophy, is the glue that holds the movie together, and while it isn’t the horror masterpiece it might have been if that atmosphere was yoked to a better story, it works well on the shiver-inducing level.

The dumbed-down 2006 Hollywood remake with Kirsten Bell, part of a trend of bastardized American remakes of J-horror classics, was widely despised by critics and audiences alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dolorous, shivery, and surreal.”–Wesley Morris, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

AKA Uncle Boonmee

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before  me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, , Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram

PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.

BACKGROUND:

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
  • Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
  • The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
  • Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
  • Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.

COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight.  Eventually, Continue reading 100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

CAPSULE: MATRIMONY [XIN ZHONG YOU GUI] (2007)

AKA The Matrimony

DIRECTED BY: Hua-Tao Teng

FEATURING: Rene Liu, Fan Bingbing,

PLOT:  The ghost of a woman who died moments before her lover proposed to her contacts his new bride with an offer to help her thaw the heart of the groom who still pines for his lost love.

Still from Matrimony (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite its (needlessly) weird ending, Matrimony is a standard-issue ghost story for the majority of its running time.

COMMENTS: If you have a yen for an atmospheric, timeless romantic ghost story that delivers a few mild shivers, then you may want to try out Matrimony—but be prepared for a bumpy road.  Set in Shanghai in what we might guess is the 1930s or 1940s, the story begins when hero Junchu sees his radio hostess lover Manli run down by a car before his eyes just moments before he could propose to her.  Understandably upset by the lack of closure to the relationship, he becomes a recluse, but agrees to an arranged marriage with subservient young Sansan under pressure from his sick mother.  Sansan loves Junchu but he spurns her, lost in his memories of Manli and his tortured thoughts of the life they might have shared.  After half an hour of setup accompanied by bumps in the night, forbidden basements and half-glimpsed apparitions, Manli’s spirit appears to Sansan and offers her a bargain that may help heal Junchu’s broken heart.  It’s an intriguing proposal, but unfortunately an exploration of the emotional entanglements that might have this arisen from complicated menage a trois between two living people and one dead one is ignored in favor of a predictable horror scenario.  Matrimony is a movie that keeps promising to turn into a very good one, but never quite fulfills its vows.  Although sometimes over-dramatic and heavy on the blue filter, the cinematography (by Wong Kar Wai collaborator Ping Bin Lee) is generally gorgeous—and sometimes magical, as in a flashback in a snowy provincial alley lit by paper lanterns and New Year’s fireworks, or the underwater ritual where Sansan breathes her living spirit into the ghost bride in a bathtub.  But the movie’s visual triumphs alternate with some painfully clumsy effects, most notably a supposedly shocking and tragic accident that’s one of the most unintentionally funny vehicular homicides ever filmed.  Since this unfortunate incident occurs at the very beginning of the story, it takes the movie a while to shake the aura of amateurism.  To its credit Matrimony does overcome this misstep and draw you back in to the story with its strong characters, but it ends on a weak decrescendo with a tired “the monster must be destroyed” climax followed by a mystifying “was it all a dream?” coda.  Although the ending is by far the weirdest card Matrimony plays, there are a couple of problems with it.  First, it comes out of left field—there’s nothing in the rest of the film to suggest we’re watching a mindbender.  More importantly, the twist adds nothing to the story dramatically, thematically or emotionally.  It simply undoes what we thought we knew about the principals, rather than expanding on their characters or forcing us to see events in a new light.  To give you an idea of the typical viewer’s response to this needlessly ambiguous closing, as of this writing there are currently two threads on the movie’s dedicated message board on IMDB, one titled “ending?” and the other “what kind of ending was that?”  It’s unfortunate that the movie, which does a lot right in the middle, puts its weakest moments at the very beginning and the very end, where they’re most likely to be remembered.  For better or worse, Matrimony is a sometimes rewarding, frequently frustrating experience.

Matrimony is a rare example of a horror film from mainland China; despite the genre’s popularity in the rest of east Asia and in the formerly independent province of Hong Kong, the Chinese government apparently considers scare flicks a bad investment and/or a bad influence.  Though released under Palisades Tartan’s “Asia Extreme” label with a misleadingly gruesome cover image of a wedding band slipped onto a severed hand, Matrimony is far from extreme.  It’s closer to an art film than a typical J-horror or K-horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film does toss us a ringer at the end, an ambiguous but strangely satisfying little coda that suggests Teng might have been more interested in playing a metaphysical card than telling a love story or a ghost story all along.”–Tom Becker, DVD Verdict (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE PEANUT BUTTER SOLUTION (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Rubbo

FEATURING: Mathew Mackay, Michel Maillot, Siluck Saysanasy, Alison Darcy, Michael Hogan

PLOT: A boy loses his hair from a fright, but some grateful ghosts give him a secret recipe for regrowing it; complications ensure when he doesn’t follow the formula exactly.

Still from The Peanut Butter Solution

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird—scarringly weird—to kids, but this follicular fairy tale is unlikely to have the same effect on grown-ups.

COMMENTS: The most noteworthy thing about The Peanut Butter Solution isn’t any of the weird stuff that happens onscreen; it’s the amazingly consistent reflections of adults who recall seeing it as a child. Anytime this movie is mentioned anywhere on the Net, you will see some variation of the same response: “I saw this as a kid!  I tried describing the plot to someone who hadn’t seen it and they thought I was making it up! I was beginning to think I dreamed it!”

Almost uniformly, these adult survivors of The Peanut Butter Solution mention that the movie gave them nightmares. I don’t think many adults will find this film that creepy when seeing it for the first time, but it’s easy to see why it freaked out so many kids. Leaving the weird and the scary moments to one side, just consider the number of childhood anxieties this film touches on: fear of being made fun of by other kids for being different. First encounters with death. A scary neighborhood house (where a couple of local winos burnt to death). An absent parent. Fear of oncoming puberty. The suspicion that authority figures aren’t just criticizing you for your own good; they really do have it out for you. Abduction. Even the Brothers Grimm were never this macabre. (There is a real modern fairy tale quality to the story, which we’re reminded of when the resourceful kids try to use a trail of sugar to track down the bad guys).

A movie that dealt with these themes in a straightforward way would likely upset tykes, but Peanut Butter Solution adds nightmarish imagery: a kid who’s gone totally bald (particularly frightening to a youngster who’s vaguely aware of childhood leukemia and chemotherapy). A nameless horror in an attic of an old house. Hobo ghosts. A boy smearing a mixture of peanut butter, rotten eggs and dead flies on his head. Hair that grows so fast it gets snagged in trees as he walks to school. Fur flowing out of a kid’s pants leg. A child imprisoned in an elevated box with his hair hooked up to a loom. Paintings that you can walk into.

All of these strange sights are delivered with the matter-of-factness of a dream. When young Micheal’s hair starts growing centimeters per minute, his father and sister are amazed, but not alarmed by this violation of the laws of nature. Despite the fact that his tresses lengthen visibly as he sits in class, a teacher implies Michael’s lying: hair only grows a half an inch per month, it’s a scientific fact. When Michael and dozens of schoolmates are abducted, the boy’s family is concerned, but not terrified or bereaved. Even children have to realize that there’s something off and unnatural about people’s reactions in the movie; young Micheal is terrified and depressed by the fact that his body is in revolt against him, but none of his adult protectors share his alarm or identify with his sadness.

Kids won’t pick up on the pedestrian acting and the flubbed attempts at comedy, though these factors will likely annoy adults. But even for a grown-up, the script is interesting and unpredictable enough to overcome the workmanlike thesping (and even to make you overlook the vapid, oh-so-80s synth-pop score). With its deep imagination and grasp of childhood psychology, I could imagine The Peanut Butter Solution working more effectively as a picture book than as a movie; the Signor would be a far scarier villain in the mind’s eye than he is onscreen, and the surreal situations would make illustrators salivate.

Despite the legions of adults who remember The Peanut Butter Solution from their youth, the film has never been available on DVD. (VHS copies are not hard to come by). I have a theory as to why this is: a pre-fame Celine Dion sings two (frankly lame) songs on the soundtrack, and I suspect her camp is unwilling to clear their rights without a hefty down payment first. Whenever a film is unavailable due to rights squabbles, it’s a tragedy, but there may be a silver lining here: at least the movie won’t give a whole new generation of kids nightmares.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Imagine a weird low-budget variant on The Boy with Green Hair (1948) and the Dr Seuss film The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (1953)… some people have strange memories of The Peanut Butter Solution from growing up in the 1980s but the film sounds much more wacky in description than the pedestrian way it is directed on screen.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Review (video)

(This movie was nominated for review by “James,” who said “I saw it as a child and was freaked out and I’ve seen it recently and it’s just as weird…check it out!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)