Tag Archives: International cast and crew

CAPSULE: KILLER NUN (1979)

Suor Omicidi

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DIRECTED BY: Giulio Berutti

FEATURING: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, , Lou Castel, Alida Valli

PLOT: Sister Gertrude, fresh off cancer surgery and crippled by  morphine addiction, experiences a crisis of faith as she finds herself entertaining impure thoughts and harboring murderous feelings.

COMMENTS: What a wonderfully depraved world we live in that could not only be a thing but be so plentiful that it would merit its own Wikipedia entry. The calling carries with it such a rich combination of power and repression, of mystery and denial, of sex and frustration, that it was probably inevitable that it would become a cinematic fetish object. So, now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?

Killer Nun never comes up with a particularly satisfying answer to that question. Which is odd, because all the pieces seem to be in place. We’ve got grisly murders. We’ve got deliciously nasty Bible readings. We’ve got Paola Morra ready to walk around the room completely starkers for no particular reason. Heck, look at that title. It sure feels like we’ve got all the elements in place for a delightfully smutty evening at the movies. And yet it never clears that very low bar.

Ultimately, the filmmakers aren’t willing to get down in the mud, which would be fine if they didn’t spend so much time showing off their rich and bountiful mud fields. Consider a scene where the central character, a nun with a history of drug addiction, goes into town, swaps out her habit for a dress, scopes out a local bar, and picks up a man for a no-strings-attached assignation. What a bold sacrilege this presents. Is this a swipe at the restrictive morals of the Church? A signifier of a mind resolutely on the road to madness? No, it’s just something to do, a scene that any self-respecting giallo is supposed to have, and it never comes up again. And that’s Killer Nun’s problem in a nutshell. It’s brought all the accoutrements of trash, but it’s not willing to do the work. I mean, for crying out loud, to cast Joe Dallesandro in your movie as a straight-laced model of propriety without a trace of irony is some kind of malpractice.

So thank heavens for Anita Ekberg, who is the only thing in the film that works on either side of the line. With her piercing blue eyes surrounded by ninja-star lashes, her Sister Gertrude cuts an imposing figure as she marches through the halls and practically bullies the strange variety of patients into every morning salutation and evening vespers. This lends potency to her own loss of control, because she knows that’s all that’s keeping her from being purely cruel. When she’s on the screen, accompanied by Alessandro Alessandroni’s hyperactive score with its wailing theremin and sinister plucked strings summoning bad vibes, Killer Nun flirts with the kind of low art it promises.

The Mother Superior’s declaration that “It’s a nun’s vocation to suffer” is as much a mission statement as the movie has. But it also regrets putting its heroine through that suffering, and that split personality makes Killer Nun a misguided and dull watch. Get thee to a more interesting nunnery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one doesn’t really watch KILLER NUN for its wrenching drama. No, the true pleasures to be found here are gleefully grotesque and often hilariously cruel…. A remarkable, macabre and truly mad movie…”–Chris Alexander, Alexander on Film (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Phoenix, who argued ” I found it to be surprisingly disturbing and effective. Some of its themes are sexual repression and lesbianism. And it’s hilarious. But weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: IRON MASK (2019)

Тайна печати дракона; AKA Viy 2

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DIRECTED BY: Oleg Stepchenko

FEATURING: Xingtong Yao, , , Jason Flemyng, Yuri Kolokolnikov

PLOT: “Master” has been chained in the Tower of London under the watchful eye of warden James Hook; meanwhile, in the Far East, the Great Dragon—whose eyelashes are the roots of the healing tea—is imprisoned by the evil Witch; meanwhile, accompanying the British cartographer, Jonathan Green, is the recently released Cheng Lan, Master’s daughter, who with the help of Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias, plots to save the Great Dragon from the Witch’s evil clutches.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: If the plot description doesn’t convince you, Iron Mask benefits from additional anomalies that make it “weird by a thousand cuts”. It’s a Russian-Chinese co-production for which it seems the Shaw Brothers have been resurrected to put together the most swashbuckling, uncannily-imperfect adventure possible for subtly propagandistic global distribution.

COMMENTS: Let me be clear from the outset that I did not go into Iron Mask with the intention of ever really talking about it, but what unfolded felt simultaneously familiar, bizarre, original, and derivative. Being something of a “Cold Warrior” growing up, I raised one eyebrow when I saw just how many Chinese production companies had a hand in this. The other followed suit when I then saw how many Russian production companies were involved as well. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how this big-budget, brightly-colored nonsense unspooled (seeing as I knew this was a Lions Gate production), but the experience of watching two hours of stylistic gears not quite clicking, dubbed vocals not quite making sense, and the joy the filmmakers obviously had for their dwarf overwhelmed me.

The plot. Oh, the plot. The plot write-up is one of my favorite sections. I know it’s a redundancy, and takes up valuable analysis time, but I like to relate a movie’s story in my words. This one, I don’t think I can—a sentiment I doubt I could change even if I’d seen the movie to which this is, apparently, a sequel. I described it over the telephone to a friend and the number of “What?”s building into “What!?“s was both satisfying and reassuring. This collision of narrative thefts would require at least a dozen designations from the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index. Suffice to say Chinese citizens are poor and oppressed, British citizens are foppish and eccentric, Russians are drunk and Cossack-y (redundant?), and a story isn’t helped when the English dub of the heroine is outsourced to the most Karen-y sounding actress I’ve had the mispleasure of hearing.

Iron Mask hits all the notes of a 1970s PG-rated Disney feature, but five decades late. The English title makes almost no sense, although there is a character in an iron mask: our hapless Peter I, imprisoned for some unclear reason. But worry not, he proves his identity to the sailors on a Russian ship by saving them during a thunder storm. (“I’ve never seen such seamanship! Only Peter the Great could have saved us,” remarks the first mate.) The Russian Imperialist nostalgia and the heroicism-with-Chinese-characteristics flood this uncanny valley. Even the credits join in on this off-kilter trip, with the band “Ecosystem of a Down” mentioned in the soundtrack.

The great Arnold Schwarzenegger is having fun, at least, relishing his opportunity to be neither the Terminator nor the governor of California (showing off his weapon collection, he proudly states, “Here is the sword of King Arthur! Think about that!“). Appearing early on, his Tower of London warden flicked the first switch in my “This isn’t right…” control panel. One by one, the whole array lit up. From the mad pacing I’ve only seen in Russian action films, to the spiritual tea-dragon ballad from the peasants, to the dwarf ship’s captain included for comic relief, to the truly out-of-the-blue Taxi Driver reference, all the way through to the scuba-Cossack sneak attack on the electro-mechanical proxy dragon, Iron Mask is an intense ratcheting of incongruity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing makes sense in this world, where narrative logic is a fictional concept and the only thing weirder than the story is the preposterously terrible dubbing.”–Tom Beasley, Vulture Hound (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FELLINI’S CASANOVA (1976)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: The dashing Venetian nobleman Casanova wanders around 18th century Europe seducing every woman who catches his eye.

Still from Fellini's Casanova (1976)

COMMENTS: Federico Fellini agreed to direct Casanova before he had read the Venetian libertine’s memoirs, which had only been published in 1960 in their complete uncensored form. After he did, he discovered that he hated the protagonist.

Perhaps that distaste partially explain why Donald Sutherland seems so wrong for the role of the notorious Lothario. The film’s Hollywood backers initially wanted Robert Redford for the part; Fellini vetoed them. Fellini wanted ; the suits vetoed him. Sutherland was a compromise. But, in keeping with his loathing of the character, Fellini chose to outfit Sutherland with a grotesque fake chin and nose, powder his face, and shave his head and eyebrows and replace them with a ridiculously coiffed wig and stenciled brows so that he looked like a rejected contestant from Ru Paul’s 18th Century Dandy Drag Race. It’s hard to imagine even the most desperate Renaissance floozy being hard up enough to willingly lift her petticoats for this Casanova. Perhaps that’s why, in an odd decision that bothers me more than it probably should, everyone in the movie keeps their frilly long underwear on during the manic but completely unerotic sex scenes. Casanova also has a golden wind-up mechanical owl, who pistons up and down and accompanies his assignations with a series of blips and bloops scored by Nino Rota. The lovemaking scenes are supposed to be comic—I think—but they comes across as slightly creepy, like sex scenes choreographed by an alien who’d fast-forwarded through a couple of Eurotrash sex films the night before, but didn’t have human sexual mechanics completely down.

To be fair, Sutherland does look the part of the spent, past-his-prime Casanova eeking out a humiliating living as a librarian for Count Waldstein; and the end of the film is where Fellini, too, finally shows some compassion for the drained rake. But overall, Casanova is overlong, unsympathetic, miscast, and a failure of tone. That’s not to say it’s entirely without interest, however; this is Fellini, so there’s always the possibility that some carnival with a 7-foot woman attended by two dwarfs in powdered wigs is waiting around the next bend. The costuming and set design are superlative. Fellini recreates the capitals and castles of old Europe on Cinecittà‘s indoor sets, including the impressive opener in Venice, where a giant bust of Venus rises from a canal during Carnevale as fireworks splatter the sky. Even the stormy Adriatic Sea is recreated as a sea of rustling black plastic tarps. And you can look forward to such oddities as a dinner party of necromancers, and Casanova finally discovering the great love of his life: a lifelike automaton complete with realistic artificial genitalia.

Although there’s a reason Casanova has been neglected all these years (Fellini once called it his worst movie), it easily merits a guilty peek for curiosity-seekers. In some ways, the scarcely-controlled extravagance and emphasis on mise-en-scène above all else reminds me more of early than it does late Fellini.

Fellini filmed an episode with that was cut from the final edit of the film. (Her name still appears prominently in the credits, and I kept waiting for her to show up to see what Fellini was going to do with her, er, talents).

Despite winning an Oscar (for costuming), Fellini’s Casanova was always a neglected entry in the Maestro’s canon. It didn’t even earn a DVD release in the US. In 2019, Cinecittà restored Casanova in the course of their massive remastering of Fellini’s catalog. Criterion apparently passed on it for their Fellini box set, but in December 2020, Kino rescued the film from home video limbo, sending it straight to Blu-ray.  A thoroughly-researched audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton is the only special feature of this edition.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…much less about the self-proclaimed 18th-century philanderer, his life and his times, than it is the surreal, guilt-ridden confessions of a nice, middle-class Italian husband of the 20th century… I don’t know how else to interpret this strange, cold, obsessed film, which I find fascinating, because I find the man who made it fascinating, a talented mixture of contradictory impulses, and as depressing as an eternal hangover.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argues “Any question of this film’s weirdness can be directed to the scene where Sutherland performs a bizarre sex-change ritual with two women that involves a candlewax head dress…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UNDERGODS (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chino Moya

FEATURING: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, and ensemble cast

PLOT: “K” and “Z” drive their van around a clapped-out shell of a city collecting dead bodies and telling each other about their dreams.

Still from Undergods (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: The various stories in Undergods interlock with a dreamy (at times, literally) logic worthy of Luis Buñuel. The various future-creepy scenarios are haunting, unsettling, and puzzling, but anchored by two of the most pleasant corpse-haulers one could hope to meet.

COMMENTS: Only the most fragile of barriers protect civilization as we know it today form the looming dystopia of tomorrow. Undergods two guides, body collectors “K” and “Z,” illustrate this point through their narrative dreams, which occasionally bump into reality and each other. Our affable van drivers share a camaraderie forged by their grisly work and offset by their friendly banter and shared can of rum. Moya’s stories unfold and unsteady us in the finest tradition of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, and the Black Mirror television series.

Undergods opens with an ill-boding narrative about a mysterious 11th-floor neighbor, Harry, who is locked out of his apartment and crashes with Ron and Ruth for the weekend, distressing the former and romancing the latter. After a bender, Ron encounters the apartment’s superintendent and learns that he and Ruth are presently the building’s only occupants. Harry is a charlatan. Ron and Harry scuffle in the elevator. The superintendent begins a tour, opening the door to a father and daughter prospective tenants with Ron’s corpse on the floor.

And so it goes in Undergods. That segment segues into a bedtime story being told by that father to his daughter, a story that itself segues back into the world of van-men K and Z. Like a game of “Sammy the Snake,” the chain of narratives grows and twists until, Ouroboros-style, it feeds back into to the conversation about dreams. The vignettes are invariably sad. Perhaps the happiest event is Dominic’s promotion to “head engineer”–which is small comfort, seeing as his wife’s first husband, presumed dead fifteen years prior, has just been released from a prison facility (found in K’s and Z’s milieu) and now she wants to leave him (Dominic, that is, not her recently returned husband). Undergods‘ plot is just begging for a diagram; but unfortunately I don’t make art, I review it.

Even before the first fully-fleshed story unfolds, the dystopia is firmly established. I don’t know what wreck of an old Soviet town Moya filmed in, but it is beautifully run-down and oozing with creepy grandeur. Ashy snow (or snowy ash) falls continually over the nearly-abandoned streets. The film score feels lifted from an early John Carpenter movie, providing further alienation whenever the electro-pop tones sound off. Undergods never seems to stop moving forward, until we find we never left the van. That’s all right: it’s scary outside, and K and Z have rum to share.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chino Moya’s feature debut is a haunting, almost impenetrable film, one billed as a dark fantasy but that in reality resists categorization. It will leave you with more questions than answers, but if you let it suck you into its strange world, you might not end up minding that.” –Thomas O’Connor, Tilt Magazine (festival screening)

CAPSULE: BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)

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Chi Sie?, AKA The Devil Within Her

DIRECTED BY: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Robert Barrett

FEATURING: Juliet Mills, Gabriele Lavia, Richard Johnson

PLOT: Jessica is having a baby; but maybe it’s going to be a little imp?

Still from Beyond the Door (1974)

PRE-COMMENTS DISCLAIMER: If I am to go on reviewing rip-offs of The Exorcist, I need to come out of the closet about something. This may be a shock, but here it goes: I HATE the original Exorcist! If you don’t hate it, that’s because you have “Exorcist syndrome,” which causes you to only remember the final twenty minutes of the movie.

I admit, those last twenty minutes are a good horror movie.

As I time it, the first 1:06:46 running time of the movie is a boring medical sitcom called “What’s the matter with Regan?” We wade through tests, doctors, therapists, prescriptions, brain scans, hypnotists, aromatherapists, dietitians, horoscopes, so on forever. Somebody finally utters the word “exorcist” at the 1:06:46 mark for the very first time, while we’ve been screaming at the screen “it’s demons, you idiots!” all along. It is frustrating and boring because we could see the poster for the movie when we walked in. It said “THE EXORCIST,” not “The Exorcist Who Wasn’t Needed Because It Turned out to Be ADHD.” Then, finally, the movie truly begins at the hour+ mark as we start setting up for the last twenty minutes, which again, are awesome.

So everybody take a minute to get over that. Cry into a pillow if you need to. Go watch the movie again before you respond here. Deep breath together now. At least I made you forget about the coronavirus for a minute, right? Onward with the review:

COMMENTS: Beyond the Door prepares you for a goofy time when you see there’s tag-team directors on board as well as no less than ten, count ’em, writing credits. We have Juliet Mills of Nanny and the Professor fame—in a horror movie? She’s going to play a San Francisco native while making absolutely no effort to hide either her London accent or the fact that she’s completely out of her depth here. It turns out that not only does this movie rip off The Exorcist (1973), but it also helps itself to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for an aperitif. By the opening credits, we’ve encountered Satan himself narrating to us with dialog you’ll swear was lifted from Zardoz‘ opening, complete with cute puns. Satan browbeats a Bearded Trenchcoat Creepy Dude (hereby known as “BTCD” until he gets a name) into taking on his next infernal mission: find a pregnant woman who shall whelp Satan’s spawn (I dunno, it’s a prophecy or something, go along with it). Did I mention the snazzy ’70s funk and experimental jazz soundtrack? This is Eurotrash, but it’s the finest grade Eurotrash, never good but also never boring.

Meet Jessica Barrett (Juliet Mills), wife of Robert Barrett (Gabriele Lavia). He’s a music executive, and the pair are parents to two snot-nosed little brats with foul mouths. Minutes in, we find out Jessica’s Continue reading CAPSULE: BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)