Tag Archives: Gothic

47*. THE MYSTERIOUS CASTLE IN THE CARPATHIANS (1981)

Tajemství hradu v Karpatech

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“This story is not fantastic ; it is merely romantic. Are we to conclude that it is not true, its unreality being granted ? That would be a mistake. We live in times when everything can happen — we might almost say everything has happened. If our story does not seem to be true to-day, it may seem so to-morrow, thanks to the resources of science, which are the wealth of the future.”–Jules Verne, “The Castle of the Carpathians”

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michal Docolomanský, , , , Evelyna Steimarová

PLOT: Despondent after a failed love affair, Count Teleke explores the Carpathians with his manservant in hopes of forgetting his misfortune. The pair discover a mysterious castle on a mountainside and a man half buried in the road, and make their way to the village of “West Werewolfston,” where they learn more legends about the stronghold. Accompanied by the buried man, a civil servant who’s also obsessed with the castle, Teleke decides to investigate the mysterious edifice, where an evil Baron and a mad scientist are developing a powerful weapon.

Still from The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For all the incredible gadgetry that appears in The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, the most unforgettable one may be the tiny pistol, no larger than a thumb, that the count pulls out to protect himself at the first sign of danger. (The bullets would have to be about the size of water drops, and locating the tiny trigger would be a chore).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyes and ears on a staff; desiccated diva

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the steampunk, slapstick Czech parody of Gothic literature you never knew you needed—until you heard it described in just those words.

Restoration trailer for Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians

COMMENTS: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the last entry in a loose Czech trilogy parodying genres popular in the West: Continue reading 47*. THE MYSTERIOUS CASTLE IN THE CARPATHIANS (1981)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)

DIRECTED BY: Jean Epstein

FEATURING: Charles Lamy, Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Abel Gance

PLOT: Roderick Usher invites an old friend to the portentous mansion where he lives in the company of the servants and his dying wife, Madeline, whose portrait he has been obsessively trying to paint.

Still from The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Like it’s source material, Epstein’s silent film treatment of ’s short story doesn’t explicitly depict any extraordinary phenomena, but the aura of metaphysical discomfort and  mysterious menace is so pervasive that it lends it an oneiric character—one that’s likely to give a stronger and longer lasting impression than any more overt effect.

COMMENTS: Despite the expected controversy over the precise definition and characteristics of the movement (or whether it even qualifies as a movement), one could say that the underlying tenet of French Impressionism is the search for an emancipated cinematic language, with its own forms and techniques, in contrast to the “filmed theater” approach. Instead, cinema was to articulate, with its own unique means, certain realities (and modes of expressing them) that no other art-form could. Impressionist films focused on, among other things, subjective, psychological reality: dreams, madness and all sorts of altered states of consciousness, The methods necessary to compellingly bring it to life were unconventional camerawork, including character point-of-view perspectives, innovative editing techniques, a preoccupation with the visual composition of shots and their picturesque qualities (such as the contrasts between light and dark), etc.

With this said, it’s easy to see how such a movement proved vitally influential to weird cinema (and filmmaking in general)—as well as why it’s the perfect fit for an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And indeed, Jean Epstein aptly translates the author’s most revered hallmarks—a constant, underlying sense of unease—to the language of cinema. It’s so well-realized that the viewer can predict the house’s impending ruin even without the title. The suggestion of a spectral world of shadows and unconscious forces subtly advances on diurnal reality, and the persistent aura of mystery and the uncanny reveals itself at each new turn, be it in the enigmatic presence of Madeline Usher, in Roderick’s afflicted mood and behavior, or in the many disquieting details of the mansion and its surroundings.

The resulting atmosphere of dreamlike disquiet is sustained through the film’s runtime, as if the viewer were trapped in the elegant and ethereal matter of a cloud as it gradually darkens and thickens before the storm. And as overused as it might be, “atmosphere” is indeed the appropriate term, considering the amount of shots purely devoted to its establishment (the ominous images of Nature, the manor’s vast, empty spaces where nothing but the wind manifests itself)—especially when compared to the more practical approach Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973)

AKA Dead People; Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming; Return of the Living Dead

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DIRECTED BY: , Gloria Katz

FEATURING: Mariana Hill, Michael Greer, Anitra Ford, Joy Bang, ,

PLOT: Arletty travels to the quaint seaside burg of Point Dune in search of her father: apprehensions grow when she meets the unwelcoming locals, reads her father’s crazed diary entries, and discovers the legend of a mysterious figure who returns to his cannibalistic flock every hundred years.

Still from Messiah of Evil (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of this site’s features is the Indelible Image: that one shot or scene that stands out in a movie when all the other strange and disturbing visions have faded from view. Messiah of Evil feels like an attempt to make a feature film composed entirely of Indelible Images. It’s entirely about creating a queasy, unsettling vibe, and that it does, in scene after scene.

COMMENTS: Messiah of Evil springs from the minds of filmmaking duo Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who in 1973 were having quite a year. Their script for American Graffiti catapulted them onto the A-list, while this threatened to pull them right back down. Having sat on the shelf unedited for two years, Messiah was finally bought and hastily released, which makes it all the more impressive that the unsettling vibe Huyck and Katz were going for seeps through.

The opening five minutes is a spectacular smorgasbord of mixed messages. A man (played by future The Warriors auteur Walter Hill) breathlessly runs from something terrible, while a turgid ballad plays on the soundtrack in which the singer speaks to the wind. Then a pretty girl slits the man’s throat, and we’re transported to a mental asylum where an exhausted woman unspools a tremendous mood-dump, warning us that “they’re waiting for you” and saying of a town on the coast that “they used to call it New Bethlehem, but the changed the name to Point Dune after the moon turned blood red.” Then she lets out a bloodcurdling scream, which cues the song to return and plops us back to the woman’s arrival in town just as a gas station attendant wildly fires a pistol into the darkness. If you’re looking for a film with a high WTF-factor, Messiah of Evil is off to a terrific start.

The film works very hard to keep you off-balance throughout. Part of that is the bevy of offbeat choices that occur at every turn. At an art gallery in town, the manager is an old blind woman whose fingers move across Arletty’s face “like a pale spider.” An albino truck driver happily offers to share his light snack of live rats while cranking “Wagner” (pronounced like Lindsay rather than Richard) on the radio. The walls of her father’s house are covered with mirrors and murals that stare at her unceasingly, including one that appears to be a very large Lee Harvey Oswald portrait. There’s nothing in Messiah of Evil so strange that it can’t be made just a little bit stranger.

Even better is when those weird twists end up being directly connected to Huyck and Katz’ story. Following up a lead at a motel, Arletty finds a bizarre trio of wanderers: Thom, a long-haired, nattily-attired fellow who oddly resembles a lithe Stephen Fry, and two disinterested hippie girls, Laura and Toni, with varying attention spans. We meet them listening to an extensive monologue/info dump from a disheveled wino. When the vagrant turns up dead the next day, Thom and his coterie move in with Arletty, because why not?

The girls’ most important contribution to the film is to be the focus of a pair of standout setpieces in which they fall victim to the appetites of Point Dune’s hungry residents. Laura’s decision to skip town seems like an aimless diversion until she ends up at a mostly empty grocery store (it’s a Ralphs, for the benefit of our readers in either California or Night Vale) where a group of patrons make a squishy, slurpy buffet of the raw items at the meat counter, and then make a meal of her. Toni meets her end in a similarly creepy fashion at a movie theater, where the empty auditorium quickly fills up in precisely the same manner that The Birds populates its school playground with avian aggressors. These scenes are the best illustration of the kind of horror Huyck and Katz are interested in: a slow, methodical, and inevitable sense of doom that can’t be debated, understood, or avoided.

The movie works best when it’s not trying to fulfill your expectations for a comprehensible plot. For example, Royal Dano’s dread-laden narratives are head-scratching when you try to mine them for clear explanations, but sharply effective when you focus on the batty circumstances he describes. (It’s extra fun to imagine that Dano is invoking his most famous role, that as the voice of Disneyland’s Abraham Lincoln animatronic.) The less sense things make, the more potent the film’s dark vibe. And that turns out to be fortunate, since there is so much that does not make sense in Messiah of Evil. This quiet little picture packs a lot of mood. It’s best not to come to town looking for more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The miraculous alchemy isn’t that Messiah of Evil suddenly turns good at any point – the acting, in particular, remains comically atrocious throughout – but that it somehow uses its badness as a tool, rather than a limitation. As the film depicts increasingly weird, threatening, and ultimately violently behavior, the very film itself seems to have become possessed by a spirit of evil.” – Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

(This movie was nominated for review by Pinstripe Hourglass. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

B’TWIXT NOW AND SUNRISE: THE AUTHENTIC CUT (2011/2022)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, Alden Ehrenreich, David Paymer, Don Novello, Anthony Fusco,

PLOT: A struggling writer’s book tour lands him in a mysterious small town, where the sheriff invites him to help investigate a serial killer and guides him through a dreamworld of ghosts, vampires, and murderers.

Still from B'Twixt Now and Sunrise (2011/2022)

COMMENTS: In 2011, Francis Ford Coppola released a movie called Twixt, a vampire/ghost story starring Val Kilmer as a low-rent horror writer, Elle Fanning as a pixie-esque dead girl, and Bruce Dern as the town sheriff/aspiring writer. Not many people remember it, which makes Coppola’s decision to re-release it, calling it B’Twixt Now and Sunrise: The Authentic Cut (2022), slightly baffling. Only slightly so, though, given both how much the man likes director’s cuts and the special significance this film has to him.

Its first time out, Twixt was roundly panned. The writing (by Coppola) is unfortunate, the look of the dreamworld—where Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is guided through the story of a mass child murder by Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin)—is overly crisp, background characters are either wooden or overwrought, and so on. There are odd choices throughout, and the overall effect is that Twixt is a bad movie—a very entertaining bad movie.

For The Authentic Cut, Coppola removed eight minutes of runtime (four of them from the ending, which was already abrupt) and didn’t add any new footage. While the changes are understandable, such as patching scenes together, creating a twist ending, removing a homophobic joke, etc., the movie isn’t much better for them, and this is tragic.

B’Twixt is a movie close to Coppola’s heart. This is because of a subplot wherein Baltimore’s daughter has been killed in a boating accident, and he comes to accept culpability. Coppola’s 22-year-old son was also killed in a boating accident, in the same way as shown in the film. So of course he would want this semi-confessional movie to be its best and not an embarrassment. But all that works in Twixt/B’Twixt is the stuff makes it funny and cheesy and bad, like Bruce Dern’s screwball sheriff. His over-the-top energy would be par for the course in an out-and-out comedy, but because this is not one, the question of whether certain things are intentionally funny is that much more fascinating.

There are cool moments, especially in the dreamworld when everything is black and gray and red, sometimes looking like an expressionist version of  Sin City (which was released 6 years earlier). These scenes are dominated by the leader of the evil, possibly vampiric goth kids, who has the gothiest makeup ever and reads Baudelaire in French. His name is Flamingo, and he broods under the full moon. Again, genius bleeds into the ridiculous, leaving us both chuckling and wondering about intentionality.

Coppola’s original vision for this film included performing it live, taking advantage of the digital nature of editing, and having the score performed along with a fluid cut—a groundbreaking undertaking,  which occurred only once, at Comic-Con. One can easily assume from this intention that Twixt was never meant to be the final version.

For people interested in (one of) the auteur’s vision(s), B’Twixt is here for you now. But if you want a low budget horror-comedy that is both intentionally and unintentionally funny, Twixt is a hidden gem.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The shot on digital low-budget indie film was inspired by dreams Coppola had and, well, that’s what it feels like. Although this trimmed down version is more focused and less clunky than the original (especially with Hall’s character arc), it still feels like a mish mash of ideas more than a fleshed out story… plays like a poor man’s ‘Twin Peaks.'”–DVD corner (Blu-ray)

 

CAPSULE: DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES (2021)

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Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Kopacka

FEATURING: Anna Platen, Jeff Wilbusch, Luisa Taraz, Frederik von Lüttichau

PLOT: A couple visit an old gothic castle the wife has inherited; it’s haunted, and simmering resentments from their past erupt into anger—but then there’s a twist.

Still from Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes (2021)

COMMENTS: Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is a difficult movie to talk about, plotwise, because it contains a major twist coming at the end of the first act. It’s much easier to discuss in terms of its stylistic inspirations: it’s a shameless tribute to minimalist Gothic Eurohorror of the late 60s and early 70s, as exemplified by , , and (especially) . Set in a “castle” (I’d call it more of a manor), you can expect to see lots of lingering scenes of women wandering the darkened corridors bearing candelabras or walking through the grounds at night in a trance clad in white nightgowns, that sort of thing. The music—jazzy prog rock à la Goblin, alongside a variety of other rock-pop styles and more traditional orchestra-and-synth scare cues—is excellent, if ladled on a bit thick at times. Period details are perfect, even down to the pale pink, drop-shadowed opening title font, festooned with curlicues.

Again, there is not much that can be said about the plot without spoiling things. We’ll mention this nugget: while wandering around in the dusty wine cellar, Dieter (whose face and bearing perfectly express a Germanic arrogance that begs for a bloody comeuppance) finds a chest. Inside are a pair of glasses, an old newspaper article describing a tragedy, and a whip. All three items are clues, of an obscure sort. True to its inspirations, Dawn Breaks is more concerned with eerie ambiance than with narrative momentum, and the first thirty minutes are slow going. Things pick up, however, in the second act, eventually landing in a massive psychedelic-fueled orgy that shades into a finale that’s even weirder and more abstract than what came before.

Fans of vintage arty European horror movies are likely to be sucked in, although it is not the simple homage it appears to be at first. If the viewer can make it through the slow-paced introductory act, the movie starts to open up, introducing more levels that provide a psychological depth to the characters, casting them as archetypes of man and woman engaged in an eternal battle of the sexes. You are invited to infer your own backstory for the major characters based on hints dropped in casual conversation. The movie does well overcoming its budgetary limitations, utilizing every dusty, paint-stripped corner of its setting and relying on nifty editing and basic camera tricks (blurring, pink gel filters, superimposition) when it strides into lysergic territory. Multilayered and elegantly decadent, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes remains mysterious to the end, a fact which will frustrate many horror fans hoping for a clear denouement, but which shouldn’t be a barrier for most of our readers.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes debuts on video-on-demand starting June 24; we’ll update this post with the link when the time arrives.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“About once a year, I see a movie that is so weird it takes me about 48 hours to figure out if I like it… Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is that movie this year.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (festival screening)