Tag Archives: Mythology

CAPSULE: VIKINGDOM (2013)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Yusry Kru

FEATURING: Dominic Purcell, Conan Stevens, Craig Fairbrass, Natassia Malthe, Jesse Moss, Jon Foo, Patrick Murray 

PLOT: A medieval Viking king who’s been raised from the dead goes on a quest to defeat the god Thor, who wants to destroy Earth because he is jealous of the rise of Christianity.

Still from Vikingdom (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s bad, but outside of a couple of head-scratching scenes, not so-bad-it’s-weird.

COMMENTS: Made by Malaysians and played out on CGI-sets that look like black metal album covers, Vikingdom is an odd film whose stupid title telegraphs the level of sophistication involved. I don’t mean to insult the Malaysian film industry; I suspect that if a group of Norwegian filmmakers tried to make an epic film based on traditional Malay mythology, the results would be equally dubious.

The details of the quest storyline are overcomplicated and confused. Essentially, Thor (the massive Conan Stevens, whose wig is dyed that unnatural pink-red shade typical of the Wendy’s mascot) is pissed at the popularity of Christianity and wants to crucify a few priests and steal the sacred necklace of Mary Magdalene (?) as a prelude to opening the gates of Hel and destroying the Middle Kingdom. Opposing him is the former king Eirick, beloved of the goddess Freya, who raised him from the dead when he fell on the battlefield. After coming back to life Eirick spends ten years living as a hermit in the wilderness. We first encounter the shirtless hero in a snowstorm; using only his dagger, he kills and skins a bear for its hide. (I would have done that the first winter). The glam-god Frey, Freya’s more feminine twin brother in a fabulous glowing yellow cloak, visits Eirick’s cabin and informs him that thanks to his undead/semi-dead status, he will be able to enter the underworld to seize the Gilded Horn that, when blown in Thor’s face (!) will destroy the god’s Earthly avatar and send him back to the place of spirits. Eirick reluctantly agrees and sets out assembling a mini-army in bad wigs, including a loyal slab of beefcake, a kickboxing Chinese slave (?), a babe who’s so hot she can bare her midriff even in the arctic winter, and many more lovable sidekicks with backstorys to squeeze in. After storming a random village and killing everyone they see, the good guys rescue an ancient wizard with a shrubbery growing between his shoulder blades who tells them how to get to Helsgate. When they arrive Eirick enters Hel, dives into the Gate of Souls (the afterlife’s hottest dogpile, where the world’s deceased strumpets go to be covered in gold leaf and lie in a giant flesh pyramid for all eternity), before being chased by a macrocephalic dragon into the Sea of Inspirational Appearances by Supporting Characters. And that’s just the first half!

Of course, that summary makes Vikingdom sound like a lot more fun than it actually is. This is one of those films where you will largely be required to supply your own entertainment. The filmmakers are mightily over-serious, believing that they are making a -esque fantasy epic, when in reality the final result looks like a TV pilot for a syndicated series that was never picked up (“Thor: The Legendary Journeys,” or “Eirick: Undead Prince”). Since most of the movie was shot against a green-screen—the portable contemporary version of the studio backlot—Malaysia is not even destined to be the next New Zealand. The two hour-plus running length is a clue that the filmmakers did not clearly grasp that their target audience should be children and B-movie fans who want to get to the set pieces and fights as quickly as possible, bypassing talk and cliche character development. The plot twists are as blunt as Thor’s hammer. On the plus side, the battle scenes are not too bad, involving some interesting tactics (overlapping shields used as an umbrella against arrows), gouts of blood, and head-scratching moments (Jon Foo’s out-of-left-field medieval kung fu moves). With a faster pace, Vikingdom could have been a zippy camp spectacle; instead, it’s a cross-cultural train wreck.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will surely be savaged by critics and honestly enjoyed only by the most naive audiences (though there will be plenty of cynical types who, like myself, will read the film as a camp production or accidental comedy)… not a great movie, or even a very good one, but it is an original – and sort of adorable – one.”–Philip Martin, Arkansas Gazette (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2013)

AKA Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Zhang Wen, Qi Shu, Bo Huang

PLOT: A pacifist Buddhist demon hunter who tries to redeem rather than kill evil spirits clashes with a powerful mercenary huntress, who falls in love with him despite his vow of chastity; together they seek the Monkey King’s help to defeat a powerful boar demon.

Still from Journey to the West (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We have a crazy Stephen Chow movie on the ListKung Fu Hustle—and while Journey to the West is wild, it doesn’t distinguish itself enough from the 2004 classic to justify including two such similar films.

COMMENTS: Journey to the West contains the hallmarks Stephen Chow fans love: a delirious mix of wacky wire fu, cartoonish comedy, outlandish visuals, and a massive dose of heart. Chow’s spectacles recall great Hollywood storytelling traditions—you could easily imagine Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas tackling similar material—while remaining distinctively Chinese. Although Chow’s presence in front of the camera is missed in this outing, mop-headed Zhang Wen makes for an excellent stand-in. He is totally beleaguered and outclassed by demons and demon hunters alike at the film’s opening, but perseveres to find the spiritual strength to face down evil by the conclusion. Qi Shu is delightful as the tomboy mercenary smitten by the pacifist cutie, and constantly scheming to get under his robes, while Bo Huang makes an impressively impish Monkey King with groovy dance moves and insidious cunning. A trio of rival demon hunters—including a nameless shapeshifter, the ancient Foot, and the sickly Prince Important—fill out the roster of kooky characters. Every element of the film is top notch except for the CGI, which lacks necessary detail and realism and isn’t up to Hollywood standards, often looking like bad, 90% finished renderings of animatronic puppets. The monster designs themselves, however, are very good—check out the catfish/tiger/dragon hybrid—and the level of creativity is so impressive that only the most parochial and unimaginative American effects snob would complain about the sub-par technology. Journey to the West constantly surprises with its twists and turns, highlighted by a battle with a fish demon in the harbor of a ramshackle riverside village, a deserted inn that’s been turned into a ghostly pork palace, and a comic sketch involving an “obedience charm” that turns hilariously homophobic. Topping it all off is an outrageous fifteen minute final battle scene with grotesquely oversized body parts, an armada of heat-seeking swords, and (naturally, this being a Chow movie) a giant glowing space Buddha with magma palms. A lot of the Chinese tropes, both mythological and comedic, will seem unfamiliar and strange, but that only enhances the experience for the adventurous viewer. Westerners, journey to the East to see Journey to the West; you won’t regret the trip.

Journey to the West is based on a 16th century Chinese novel that has been loosely adapted for film many times (including 1995’s A Chinese Odyssey, where Stephen Chow himself played a reincarnated hero version of the Monkey King). The final scene suggests sequels to come, and as long as Chow remains involved, we should look forward to the further travels of Xuan Zang as he makes his way westward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s during this cartoony, anything-goes climax that Conquering The Demons truly hits its stride; part highly stylized wuxia, part Looney Tunes, the sequence showcases Chow at his weirdest and most entertaining.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

“The montage of hermetic symbols becomes first dreamlike, then menacing; centuries of mystical thought are distilled into a series of voyeuristic fantasies, a kinky psychodrama backed by the carnival strains of a maleficent calliope.  Anger intended Lucifer Rising to stand as a form of ritual marking the death of the old religions like Judaism and Christianity, and the ascension of the more nihilistic age of Lucifer.”–Mikita Brottman in “Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Myriam Gibril, , Marianne Faithfull, Leslie Huggins,

PLOT: Lava erupts and the goddess Isis awakens, calling to her husband Osiris. In a room far away a man wakes up, sits on a throne in his apartment and somehow spears a woman in a forest far away, then climbs into a bathtub to wash off the blood. Later, the moon awakens the goddess Lilith, a magick ritual summons Lucifer, and flying saucers appear over Luxor, Egypt.

Still from Lucifer Rising (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Anger originally shot a film called Lucifer Rising (A Love Vision) in 1966, which starred Bobby Beausoleil as Lucifer.  Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole most of the completed footage and hid it; the star contended that Anger merely ran out of money to complete the movie.  Anger then took out an obituary-style ad in The Village Voice announcing his retirement from filmmaking.  Whatever the case, Anger incorporated some of the surviving footage from the original Lucifer into Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969).
  • Anger began working on the project again in 1970 and completed the first cut of Lucifer Rising in 1973, with a score by Jimmy Page.  After a falling out with Page he had the movie re-scored by Bobby Beausoleil.
  • Beausoleil was a Haight-Ashbury musician who came under Anger’s influence during the Summer of Love.  After his falling out with Anger the musician joined Charles Manson’s “Family.” He murdered music teacher Gary Hinman in 1969 over a drug deal gone wrong, and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Anger contacted him to create the music for Lucifer Rising, and he wrote and recorded the score from prison.  The band heard on the soundtrack is comprised of his fellow inmates.
  • Lucifer Rising was completed with funds from the National Film Finance Corporation of Great Britain, prompting some controversy about state funding of a “devil film.”  Anger also received financial assistance from the Germany’s Hamburg Television and the U.S.’s National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Anger did not complete the editing on the final cut until 1981, a decade after work was begun.
  • In one of the film’s final scenes there is a long shot of the Colossi of Memnon in Upper Egypt. If you look hard you can see a puff of smoke rising in the distant background. According to Anger, this came from him ceremonially burning the film’s script because the work was now complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The orange UFO flying over the crumbling columns of the Temple of Luxor, then peeking over the shoulder of the colossal ancient statue of Ramses II.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Egyptian gods and goddesses frolicking through a magickal psychedelic landscape, summoning Lucifer and flying saucers.


Trailer for “The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 2 (including clips and music from Lucifer Rising)

COMMENTS:  A shaggy-haired man in a robe of many colors caresses a stone column. A Continue reading 102. LUCIFER RISING (1981)

CAPSULE: THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER, VOL. 2

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruce Byron, Kenneth Anger, Bobby Beausoleil, , André Soubeyran, Claude Revenant, Nadine Valence, , Marianne Faithfull, Myriam Gibril

PLOT: The disc includes six short, experimental, largely non-narrative films by Kenneth Anger

Still from Scorpio Rising (1964) on The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 2

completed between 1964 and 1972.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Compilations are ineligible for inclusion on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made.  Short films have an uphill battle to take a spot on the List that could be occupied by a feature, but either or both of Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising (each clocks in at just under 30 minutes long) are meaty and weird enough that they could hear their names called on the final roll.

COMMENTS: Kenneth Anger is one strange dude.  Author of the tabloid-style scandal tome Hollywood Babylon, devotee of , pal of rock stars and Jimmy Page, notoriously unreliable self-mythologizer, and winner of a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, Anger spends years working on films that only play for a few minutes (his most extensive work is only 35 minutes long).  He sometimes returns and reworks older movies a decade or more after they are released.  Even if you’ve never seen an Anger film, you’ve seen dozens of movies that have been influenced by his work; due to his innovation of scoring parades of surrealistic images to pop music, he’s sometimes considered the father of the music video (though he hates the form and has turned down offers to make videos).  The refracted images of films like Invocation of My Demon Brother also helped define the film style we now think of as “psychedelic.”  This collection contains Anger’s most important and influential works, from the 1960s and early 1970s—the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, when the formerly struggling underground academic filmmaker found himself embraced by the upcoming generation of hipsters. In order of presentation, the films covered in this collection are:

Scorpio Rising (1964): A young motorcyclist named Scorpio polishes his bike, gets dressed in leather, goes to a wild biker Halloween party, then participates in a race.  Scenes of James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and a “life of Jesus” movie are intercut into the Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER, VOL. 2

THE GORGON (1964)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

The Gorgon (1964) has a hopelessly silly synopsis: it’s basically a werewolf story transplanted onto a minor Greek myth with an even more ridiculously executed monster (complete with rubber snakes in her hair). Yet, with a stylish script from John Gilling, sublime characterization, and poetic beauty, Terence Fisher enthusiastically managed to transform this irredeemable trash into an artistically rewarding experience. Impossible, but true.

The Gorgon is an oddity in the Hammer cannon. Its pacing is deliberate and forlorn. The “monster” is the mythological Gorgon Megaera, inhabiting amnesiac victim Barbara Shelley, who again gives a performance well above that of the standard Hammer glamour girl. Unfortunately, Shelley does not play Megaera herself, a poor decision which blunts the tragic impact of the production.

For several years a number of unexplained deaths have occurred, during the full moon, in a small German village. The most recent victims are a model and her artist boyfriend. The father of the late artist, professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goddliffe) inquires into his son’s death but is met with resistance from the entire town, including old Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing). Namaroff has a motive for evading the truth, since he is not-so-secretly in love with Carla Hoffman (Shelley), whom he knows to be the Gorgon.

Although the human identity of the Gorgon is blatantly obvious from the start, it is the pathos projected by Cushing’s Phantom of the Opera-like hero (scarred by unrequited love) and Shelley’s genteel torment (inspired by the doctor’s jealousy and evasiveness) that creates the striking emotional milieu throughout the film.

Professor Heitz soon falls prey to the Gorgon. The scene plays out first in the beautifully atmospheric castles ruins, during the autumn moon, where Heitz spies the shadowy figure of the Gorgon.  Running from the horrible visage of Megara, Heitz makes it to his office and lives long enough to write his second son, Paul, a letter as he slowly and memorably turns to stone.

Barbara Shelley in The Gorgon (1954)Paul (Richard Prasco) is a student of Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee, in a rare, and quite good, turn as a sympathetic character). Paul is given leave from school upon the news of his father’s death. Like his father, Paul meets the same resistance from Namaroff and the townspeople. Carla is sympathetic to Paul’s frustrations and a love triangle develops, which enhances the inevitable tragedy of all three characters. One scene in particular conveys the expressionistic iciness of the film. Carla, in hopes of escaping the town and the shadowy spirit of Megaera, meets Paul in the same ruins in which his father met his fate. Carla sits regally in a throne-like chair and descends, fur coat draped around her shoulders, shuddering from the coldness of the season and the dread spirit lurking. The scattered, elegiac autumn leaves with their somber hues weave a spell akin to a doomed medieval fairy tale; Carla, inexplicably, cannot resist, much like the Gorgon’s victims cannot resist the act of looking at her deadly face.

Professor Meister, who has arrived to assist Paul, knows that it is Carla who is possessed by Megaera, but Paul passionately rejects his professor’s conclusion and is even more intensely driven to get Carla away from the town and Namaroff. Namaroff, channeling Lon Chaney tragic magic, sacrifices himself for his unrequited love, but he is not the only victim. Indeed, the film ends quite pessimistically.

Fortunately, the title character is, for the bulk of the film, only briefly seen, half emerging from the shadows of the columned ruins, or in one evocative scene, in the reflection of a dark pool. In the climax, when Megaera is finally seen full on, the letdown is severe enough to nearly wreck the film. Still, The Gorgon is a refreshingly unique oddity in the Hammer canon, thanks, in no small part, to a director who took the most unlikely material and crafted it into something poetic.

40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

“I’m more interested in truth than in reality.”—Guillermo del Toro, Time Out interview

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

PLOT:  While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.

Still from Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

<BACKGROUND:

  • Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
  • Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006. With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
  • Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s  head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.


Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth

COMMENTS:  You can have brilliant cinematography, masterful acting, awe-inspiring Continue reading 40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)