Tag Archives: John Hurt

CAPSULE: THE PLAGUE DOGS (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam

PLOT: A pair of dogs escape from a medical experimentation facility in Scotland and are hunted down as possible carriers of the bubonic plague.

Still from The Plague Dogs (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Yes, the idea of a depressing animated film about the horrors of animal experimentation is a strange one; but, accepting the oddness of the subject matter, Plague Dogs‘ execution is straightforward.

COMMENTS: “Why do they do it? I’m not a bad dog.”

Movie openings don’t come much bleaker than this: a black Labrador is swimming in a tank of water, exhausted and struggling to keep his head above water. “I think he’s starting to pack it in,” says the white-coated lab scientist observing him. The lab’s legs stop paddling, his eyes glaze over, and he sinks to the bottom. A hook appears and grabs him by the collar. “I think he went a little longer that Wednesday’s test,” the scientist observes as the dripping canine is hauled from the pool. He’s resuscitated, he’s vitals are measured, and he’s thrown back into a stone-floored cage with dozens of other dogs in varying states of wretchedness and despondency. The scientists schedule his next trip into the tank for Monday.

If this opening gives you the animal lover in you pause, then realize that it does get better for Rowf the Labrador—but only because it can’t get worse than being drowned multiple times a week. With the help of Snitter, a terrier with an ugly bandage duct-taped to his head to cover up the opening in his skull through which the white coats have been digging into his brain, he does escape the hellish laboratory; but life on the outside (rural Scotland) is not so easy, either. Snitter once had a human master, and believes they can find one again; but people treat them as mangy strays and shoo them away. On the edge of starvation, Rowf figures out how to kill a sheep, which of course angers the neighboring shepherds. Meanwhile, the scientists are afraid the escaped dogs will bring them bad press, and so spread the rumor that they are carrying the bubonic plague, which causes the locals to shun the dogs more. They eek out an existence on the edge of starvation with the help of the Tod, a scheming fox who teaches them how to live in the wild in exchange for sheep scraps. But their days are numbered, as a posse inevitably closes in.

As if that’s all not bad enough, Snitter has a tragic backstory of how he lost his beloved master. He has flashbacks to his happier days, sitting by the fireplace with his master scratching his head. His heartbreak is squared, when you realize what he’s lost. He’s also suffering canine madness brought about by all that brain probing—and sometimes, you wish he would stay lost in his delusions. There is no joy and very little humor in The Plague Dogs: the tone alternates between despondent and harrowing. The only spark of hope is Rowf and Snitter’s refusal to abandon each other. At times, each decides to lie down and wait for death, only to have the other pick him up to face another miserable day. And yet, you have to give the movie credit; it’s uncompromising in its viciousness, and sadly beautiful. Have a hanky nearby; this one goes in the pile with emotionally devastating adult cartoons like Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and When the Wind Blows (1986).

The animation is good, not great, but the artists have carefully studied canine movements to give these two anthropomorphic pooches realistic mannerisms. Snitter helplessly scratches at his bandage with his paw; Rowf, wary, slinks out of his cage. Snitter’s two dream sequences are mildly inventive, mixing color with black and white to create doggy dreams.

Snitter and Rowf are a classic outlaw team, outsiders whom we root for against the “legitimate” authorities. On the surface, the movie is a vicious attack on animal experimentation, but our heroes could easily stand for oppressed minorities, or the poor and homeless—anyone who’s undeserving of the hardships, scorn and fear society saddles them with. Or, it could be a pure existential allegory about the callous indifference of fortune, which doesn’t care if we’re good or bad dogs when it randomly doles out its head-scratches or its drownings.

For years, The Plague Dogs was only available in the 82-minute American theatrical version. In 2019 Shout! Factory dug up the extended 105 minute version and restored the film by splicing in two prints. They offer both versions of the film on Blu-ray (although I’m not sure who’s interested in seeing the shorter cut), and include a 15-minute interview with Rosen as a bonus feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By dealing mostly with talking, thinking animals as traditional cartoons do, but putting them into strange and harsh circumstances, the film also hammers home its differences from Disney-style animations and their refusal to face real-world problems except in disguised and symbolic form.”–David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jamie,” who recommended it “not so much for its content but the fact that this film was actually made (who greenlit a film about a pair of dogs going through hell, and then tried to sell it as an adventure film), as well as its exceedingly nihilistic and morbid tone (all for a story about talking dogs!)” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE SHOUT (1978)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jerzy Skolimowski

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A stranger wanders into the lives of a British composer and his wife, demonstrating powerful magic he learned from Aborigines in Australia as he torments the man and takes his wife hostage.

The Shout (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like many British horror tales of the 1970s, The Shout flirts with weirdness at every other step, but in the end we have to reluctantly conclude that it only gets as weird as necessary to tell its unconventional tale. Tim Curry, the man who gave the world Dr. Frankenfurter and its most memorable Pennywise, sits here in a sweater, as passive and conservative as a judge—making that two weirder movies you’ve seen Tim Curry in right there.

COMMENTS: Robert Graves (Tim Curry) visits the grounds of a mental hospital to referee a cricket match, when the Chief Medical Officer introduces him to Charles Crossley (Alan Bates). Crossley tells Graves the story of (another?) man named Crossley, who possesses a strange, magical power. Crossley invades the lives of a local composer and sound engineer and his wife, Anthony and Rachael Fielding (John Hurt and Susannah York). Anthony Fielding is now a patient at said hospital, and Crossley tells his tragic tale.

It turns out Crossley is a world-weary traveler who spent eighteen years in the Australian Outback, where he communed with Aborigine natives and learned their most powerful magic. Crossley, helping himself to the Fielding household, regales them with tales of his adventures punctuated by such shocking claims as having sired, then murdered, his children. But he has many more surprises, as he demonstrates with an Aborigine spell called “the shout,” which has the power to knock all who hear it stone dead. Crossley, an intimidating alpha male pulling primate rank on the too-polite couple, soon employs his dark magic to shatter their marriage. The couple are clearly no match for Crossley, who toys with them like a cat pawing at mice, for about the same reasons.

The story from there on out gets a little muddled, since it’s largely told with symbolism, atmosphere, and cut-in scenes which may be flashbacks or flash-forwards. Anthony is more Foley sound engineer than musician, and we’re treated to several scenes where he manipulates objects to produce bizarre sounds for recording in his studio. These scenes and their sounds punctuate the story. Another scene shows the couple asleep in their bed, while their sorcerer visitor appears in the mirror over their bed. Anthony wakes up and looks around, but doesn’t see Crossley. Was he there and disappeared, does he have the power to blank Anthony’s mind, or was Crossley only suggested in the mirror or perhaps even Anthony’s dream? The cumulative effect of all this muddling about is a film which is not like a conventional narrative, but instead like the memories as a real human brain, faulty and prone to distraction, would remember them. The pacing may be low-gear at times, but thanks to the excellent direction and hypnotizing performances, we’re too entranced by every detail to notice the time.

Lovingly shot in the British countryside of Devon, the film feels like a dreamy faerie tale in the old-fashioned Grimm style, with lots of Freudian subtext and horrors coming out of the sexual closet rather than from under the bed. Mr. Fielding is just about the victim of cuckoldry, overpowered and exiled from his own home by a master of dark forces. Early on, Mrs. Fielding finds a large bone in the sand and quickly buries it before her husband can see it, and there’s your symbolic foreshadowing. At the same time, we have the classic “unreliable narrator” puzzle. The story is told to us from inside an insane asylum: we are left to wonder how much is true, how much is a delusion, and how much is simply a lie. Perhaps this is nothing but a fanciful exaggeration of a cheating-wife story? The shifting structure of the film, given to us in layers and flashbacks, doesn’t help us settle our minds about it, but does mirror the presumed mental state of the characters. A widely-praised film of its time, which won Jury’s Grand Prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, The Shout deserves a second look by any British horror fan looking for a peer to The Wicker Man or Don’t Look Now.

The Shout was formerly available on video-on-demand but those contracts seem to have expired. It’s currently only available on British import DVD or Blu-ray so Americans will need an all-region player.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Robert Graves’s weird story becomes a weird movie…”–Adrian Turner, Radio Times

(This movie was nominated for review by reader jason slicker, who called it a “very creepy atmospheric cool piece of film.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

DAVID LYNCH’S THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

Critics and audiences were surprised by ‘s Elephant Man (1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear, The Straight Story).

The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic,  writing that the death of Joseph Merrick ((The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film.)) was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film by or . Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, is entirely artifice.

Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by ‘s nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is ‘s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.

Wendy Hiller as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead, and as the hospital’s Governor Carr-Gomm are equally effective. The film is hampered, however, by the predictable hammy acting of Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes and, surprisingly, by Anne Bancroft’s superficial performance as upper-class Shakespearean actress Madge Kendal.

Still from The Elephant Man (1980)

Like the monster of ‘s Frankenstein (1931), Merrick is the protagonist in Lynch’s film. Set in turn of the century London, Treves rescues Merrick from the cruel Mr. Bytes, who regularly beats his freak. To his astonishment, Treves discovers that Merrick is both cultured and genteel.  After Carr-Gom’s eventual approval, both Treves and Mothershead care for Merrick until his death.

Lynch says quite a bit about class distinction and pulls no punches. The lower-class, uneducated masses are not spared simply because they are destitute. Indeed, Lynch depicts them as prone to barbarism. Nor does the film congratulate the aristocracy: as Mothershead points out, “we are exhibiting Merrick all over gain.”

In lesser hands, The Elephant Man could have easily been preachy, overtly sentimental (think late Chaplin) or caved into a melodramatic crescendo (Think Spielberg). Instead, Hurt’s performance breaks through Christopher Tucker’s ingenious makeup. Ultimately, it is that portrayal which we come away with. That Lynch never allows aesthetics to impede upon the soul of the film is a testament to his craftsmanship.

CAPSULE: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Anton Yelchin

PLOT: A reclusive composer living in a cluttered house in a decaying neighborhood of Detroit is actually a vampire suffering from severe ennui; he reunites with his undead wife, who flies in from Morocco, and is visited by her troublemaking younger sister.

Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: No Jim Jarmusch movie is ordinary or normal, but this languid vampire romance/drama, while intoxicating, doesn’t quite make it all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: I’ve always wondered how vampires keep from getting bored with eternal undeath. I occasionally find it hard to find something to do to fill up a few hours on a rare free Saturday afternoon; how in the world would I pass the endless nights of dozens of strung-out lifetimes?

Only Lovers Left Alive starts from that very premise, with vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries-old composer who now collects vintage guitars and composes feedback-laced funeral dirges, bored and contemplating offing himself with a new twist on the old stake-in-the-heart methodology. The only thing that keeps him from retiring to the coffin for good is his love for fellow walking corpse Eve (Tilda Swinton, who in an albino wig looks oh-positively undead, as well as slightly resembling a transgendered Jim Jarmusch). The mood of luxurious, decadent idleness is a fit with Jarmusch’s patient style of filmmaking. The vampires here are wan intellectuals, disaffected Romantics, above the common run of the living (whom they refer to as “zombies”). There is a reference to some recent corruption of the human world, in the idea that human blood is now largely contaminated, and it’s hard for the vampires to find “the good stuff” without a connection at the blood bank (the only truly funny moment in the movie comes when a bloodsucker feels sick after sipping at the veins of a poorly-chosen victim). The script is peppered with English-lit jokes (one of the vampires is a famous Elizabethan writer), and the soundtrack is largely dark psychedelia that give off a decadent, hashish-y vibe. The commonplace hemoglobin-as-a-dug motif further reinforces the film’s Bohemian aura. Some of the best moments are the blood on the teeth montages, when the undead each down a cup of red stuff and throw back their heads in ecstasy, looking for all the world like hopheads getting a fix. Later, disheveled, wearing sunglasses at night as they wander the streets of Tangiers looking for a score, Swinton and Hiddleston might as well be staggering in the footsteps of .

Even though a couple of characters die, it seems that not much actually happens over the course of two hours, or that there is much new that can happen to these jaded walking corpses. Though not as abstract and punishing as his previous experiment in stripped-down spy fiction, 2009’s The Limits of Control, Jarmusch’s latest is bound to alienate many viewers with its lack of action and highbrow references that sometimes seem self-congratulatory. Still, if you get on its arty wavelength, you’ll find euphoric moments that hit you like a rush of fresh blood to the cerebral cortex. Colorful, arabesque, and throbbing with a melancholy drone, the purpose of the movie is not to tell a story so much as to enfold us inside of these vampires’ immortal languor. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film to soak in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…part spot-on Detroit travelogue, part pop culture satire and part fish eternally out-of-water anxiety exercise. Somehow it’s all very entertaining and weird and fitting, with Detroit looking like a place any vampire would be happy to be.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SNOWPIERCER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chris Evans, , Kang-Ho Song,

PLOT: The film takes place eighteen years after a global extinction event has plunged the world into a new ice age. The only survivors are those who managed to board the Snowpiercer, an enormous self powered train that now continually loops around the Earth on a journey with no end or purpose, in time. There is a class system, working from the front to the back, in place to keep social order. But dissent brews amongst the passengers between the haves in the front and the have-nots by the caboose.

Still from Snowpiercer (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s the weirdness, which goes beyond the central science fiction conceit, that actually makes the film unravel. Following an extremely tight and gripping first hour, it’s as if Bong is unsure where to take his film, so he halfheartedly offers a series of -esque impersonations set against increasingly flawed narrative logic. These slips distance and distract the viewer from what could have been an excellent addition to the canon of “great science fiction movies” (a list which in and of itself is a long way away from being 366 movies long).

COMMENTS: Joon-ho Bong’s first English language film generated a lot of buzz in Europe following its popular reception in his home country of South Korea. An ongoing argument between director and the stateside distributor (The Weinstein Company, as usual) over subtitled scenes not being cut means that the film may be sinking without much of a trace in the U.S.A., however, which seems a shame given Bong’s track record. The director of The Host and a segment of Tokyo!, amongst others, Bong is a director with good work to his credit. Snowpiercer, however, doesn’t stand up to critical attention. Without giving anything away, the opening section sets a very tense situation of confined spaces that are a certain class of people’s entire universe. Tired of the same food and the lack of windows, a revolution takes place with the intention of getting to the front of the train, and from here on in the film moves at a breakneck pace which is both tense and exhilarating. Particular kudos must go to Tilda Swinton, who is unrecognizable as a character based on Great Britain’s iconic Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, and is a scene-stealer during her underused screen time. The film works as a high octane action movie, and it works in this manner for quite a while; but as the lower classes gain access to new carriages the dynamic of the film changes for the worse.

Snowpiercer‘s overall fault is that its enormous plot holes are impossible to forgive against its pretensions of an intelligent subtext and analysis of modern class issues. Entertainment-driven popcorn viewing that makes up the mainstay of the Hollywood summer slate can be forgiven for saying things badly, given that it has so little to say; but Snowpiercer has a brilliant central plot device, yet Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterton’s increasingly obscure and irrational narrative comes across as a desperate distraction to take the viewers’ minds off the fact that the writer and director have no clue of where their film needs to go.

Ultimately, despite being a lot of fun at certain points, and certainly being considerably more cerebral than a most Hollywood action films can boast to be, Snowpiercer is a noble failure. More irrational than weird, and with an allegorical political subtext that doesn’t bear close scrutiny from either the left or the right, Bong’s English language debut disappoints, despite the praise being heaped upon it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off.”–Wesley Morris, Grantland (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)

DIRECTED BY: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (uncredited)

FEATURING: Voices of , Zero Mostel, Richard Briers, , , Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern,

PLOT: Rabbits living in a warren called Sandleford leave their home when one of them, named Fiver (Briers), has a foreboding vision. Fiver and his brother Hazel (Hurt) lead their companions to a new hill, but the group finds even more acrimony and strife when they meet the imposing General Woundwort (Andrews).

Still from Watership Down (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because while often dark, violent and sad, this film is only weird if you think that “cartoons” are only for kids. Anyone who’s seen Yellow Submarine, or practically any anime from Japan knows better. Watership Down is mature, but not weird.

COMMENTS: :Since most audiences think of animated characters as cute, furry and musical (like in most Disney product) or incessantly wisecracking (as in the films from Dreamworks, and practically every other studio), it’s refreshing to mentally travel back to a time—1978—when animation was in the doldrums, and filmmakers would take a chance on something as melancholy and brooding as Watership Down. In this movie, based on Richard Adams’ 1974 bestseller, rabbits bleed, foam at the mouth and die—on camera. There are no pop culture references, no Broadway-style musical numbers, and no jokes about bodily functions. So it’s easy to admire and appreciate this British film—on an academic level– for doing something different. But, unfortunately, the movie is just not that compelling. The animation is… good enough, with the bunnies being still cute, but not excessively anthropomorphic. But some of the other supporting characters, like the annoying seagull Kehaar (voiced by the great Zero Mostel, in his final performance), seem to have flown in straight from a 1970’s Saturday morning cartoon. There are several impressive backgrounds, and effects like flowing water, which are particularly impressive when you consider that this was all done before the dawn of CGI. For a low-budget film, the animation isn’t bad. But the pacing is lethargic (it seems like the movie is almost half over before it really gets going), and it seems that trying to compress Adams’ 475-page novel into 92-minutes (which is only about as long as most conventional animated productions) is problematic.

With 36 years having passed since the release of this film, it’s difficult to watch it now without being reminded of other animated pictures with at least superficially similar plots. For instance, there was the admittedly much more light-hearted Chicken Run (another rare British animated film), about hens trying to escape a farm, as well as The Secret of NIMH, about a family of mice trying to relocate their home. Compared to those two gems, Watership Down comes up a bit short. On the plus side, the film’s music by Angela Morley is beautiful and haunting, as is Mike Batts’s song “Bright Eyes”, sung unmistakably by Art Garfunkel. When “Bright Eyes” is reprised during the closing moments of “Watership Down”, it’s genuinely affecting.

The DVD (there is no North American Region A Blu-ray) comes with a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries that are arguably more interesting than the movie itself. In one of them, director-writer-producer Rosen explains how he–having never directed anything before–took over the reins after original director John Hubley left, and how Malcolm Williamson also bailed on the project after writing only two pieces of music for the film. Angela Morley then came in and adapted that minimal score for the entire movie.

One final bit of trivia. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” called Watership Down “One of the best non-Disney animated films ever made.” While this is arguable in itself, the quote on the back of the DVD box eliminates the “non-Disney” qualification!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…filled with… extraordinary pieces of mythic imagery…”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

138. DOGVILLE (2003)

“To take ‘Dogville’ primarily as the vehicle for this [anti-American political] view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is… Mr. Von Trier offered, ‘I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.’ It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film’s pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.”–A.O. Scott quoting Lars von Trier in his New York Times article on Dogville

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bettany, , , , , Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, , Siobhan Fallon,

PLOT: Tom Edison, who fancies himself an intellectual and a moralist and dreams of becoming a writer, is bored with life in the tiny, isolated mountain township of Dogville, until one day he comes across a beautiful, refined young woman who is fleeing gangsters for unknown reasons. Tom falls in love with her and convinces the town to take the woman in and hide her; they agree that the woman, Grace, will do chores for the townspeople to earn her keep and gain their trust. But the more the self-effacing Grace offers to the people of Dogville, the more they abuse her forgiving nature, until they have turned her into the town’s slave; then, the men who were searching her out arrive…

Still from Dogville (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dogville is the first movie in a proposed trilogy from von Trier entitled (ironically) “America: Land of Opportunity.” The second in the series, Manderlay (2005), was shot on a similar minimalist set, also narrated by John Hurt, and featured the character of Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Manderlay was not as well received and was a financial flop. The third film has not been announced. Von Trier refuses to fly and has never been to the United States.
  • Von Trier set up a reality-show style confessional booth next to the set where (sometimes disgruntled) actors could enter and speak to the camera. This footage was edited into the 52-minute documentary Dogville Confessions, which appears as an extra on some DVD releases of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The shot of Nicole Kidman lying in the truck bed among the apples, seen through the transparent canvas, is probably the film’s most beautiful image. Dogville itself, however, is the film’s most memorable image: a single blank set, with house walls and gooseberry bushes indicated on the floor with chalk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Think that maybe Dogville may not be such a weird movie? Imagine you are about to pop this DVD into your player when your friend with the most ultra-conservative movie tastes walks in the room and asks what you’re about to watch. You respond, “Nicole Kidman plays a saintly woman fleeing mobsters who’s taken in by a small American town and used as a sex slave. Oh, and it’s shot in a warehouse with the buildings painted on the floor.” If your friend doesn’t immediately leave the room muttering “sounds too weird for me” then congratulations! Your most normal friend is a complete and utter weirdo.


Misleading original American release trailer for Dogville

COMMENTS: What director has a lower opinion of humanity than Lars von Trier? An acid moral parable, Dogville is almost weirdly ultra-rational, in Continue reading 138. DOGVILLE (2003)