Tag Archives: Nazis

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: SLEEP (2020)

Schlaf

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Venus

FEATURING: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, August Schmölzer, Sandra Hüller, Marion Kracht

PLOT: Mona visits the hotel where her mother, a long-time sufferer of crippling nightmares, experienced a stupor-inducing breakdown, discovering that the known elements of its dark history pale in comparison to the full roster of its buried atrocities.

COMMENTS: If this is Germany’s answer to the often nonsensical “dream horror/thriller,” then sign me up for some naturalization papers. Before you ask, no, this is not a ground-breaking movie and no, this is not a movie that entirely makes sense. The latter of those aspects is partially what makes it merit 366’s attention, but what makes this such a delicious cake of silly, serious, piggy, Nazi, death-metal, hotelier smiley-horror are… well, those elements that I just listed to describe it. Like the nightmare boar that lurks around its periphery, the unexpected comes in from seemingly out of nowhere often enough to make Sleep highly enjoyable.

The nightmare plot is anchored by two heroines: Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) and her mother Marlene (Sandra Hüller). Marlene suffers from horrible nightmares and violent night terrors. She pulls a fast one on her daughter claiming she’ll be “overnighting in Istanbul” (Marlene is a stewardess), but actually heads to the Stainbach hotel she has begun to clearly see in her dreams. Three men have killed themselves in this dream hotel, and a fourth much more dangerous man threatens her subconscious. Shortly after checking into the generically named “Sonnenhügel” (“sun hill”) hotel (into the symbolism-heavy room number “187”), she suffers a massive attack and ends up in a stupor at a nearby hospital. Daughter Mona’s subsequent visit to Sonnenhügel is where the real story begins…

There are a lot of obvious dreams and false-awakenings, but these are well-executed and forgivable considering the genre. Michael Venus even gives the viewers a primer on the repercussions of dying in dreams—Mona and Franzi (the only maid to be found in this massive hotel complex) have a conversation over coffee bluntly describing said survival chances. But the real menace comes from Franzi’s bosses, the hotel owners. Otto is affable and obliging in such a way that you know something creepy is up, but still want to believe him; his wife Lore has the reserved look of a woman who knows more than she wants to. (This idea is reinforced when we first see them arise from bed together; she lovingly undoes her husband’s wrist and ankle restraints for the day while he talks sweetly about a dream he had that night.)

What slips Sleep into the silly/creepy territory are Otto’s ambitions beyond hotel development. I’ve already hinted at these, so I’ll go no further than to say that there are ultimately some heavy references to Pigsty and a massacre that could have been lifted straight from the Inglorious Basterds playbook. Whoever else Michael Venus is, he’s someone who feels that too much of a good thing is a better thing: dreams, drugged schnapps, creepy pig-masked men in tuxedos, incubi, and revenge, revenge, revenge. That, it appears, is a dish best served with strobe lights flashing, meat tenderizer in hand, and a surprise knife to the neck.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Occasional non-sequiturs and bursts of surreal speech invite us to wonder if we’re dreaming… There’s a lot to digest here and at times it feels as if Venus has added more ingredients than he really needs… Nevertheless, it’s a stylish attempt to address issues that remain taboo for many Germans. It invites us all to look directly at what lies in the unconscious, to address it there before it takes physical form.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IRON SKY: THE COMING RACE (2019)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lara Rossi, Kit Dale, Vladimir Burlakov, Tom Green, Renate Richter, Udo Kier

PLOT: In 2047, humanity’s last survivors cower in the crumbling Moon base after nuclear holocaust; to save the species, Obi must journey to back to Earth to find a mystical power source.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Hitting about a ten on my ridiculosometer, Vuorensola’s follow-up to his unexpected 2012 hit digs deep into a bag of outlandish premises; it’s often hilarious, and quite fun, but not weird. Just… silly. Really, really silly.

COMMENTS: Whatever other qualities Timo Vuorensola has, he’s a great salesman. With his not-quite-debut Iron Sky, he made a pitch to investors that a movie about Moon Nazis was a viable project. Having established his own universe to play around in, he tops himself thematically and financially with the sequel Iron Sky: The Coming Race. Not content to rest on his laurels and just have the Nazis regroup, he dives into the “Hollow Earth” myth and concocts an origin of species theory whose only time-spanning equal might be Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus.

Renate Richter’s daughter Obi (Lara Rossi) works tirelessly to keep a decrepit Moon base operational while a Steve Jobs cult hoards the facility’s scant resources. Led by their charismatic preacher, Donald (Tom Green, with scene-stealing deadpan), the Jobsists demand the perfection of a “closed system.” Obi’s mother is an acolyte, but she is dying —and her cure lies in an unlikely place. Crazy-Russian-Stereotype Sasha (Vladimir Burlakov) literally crashes onto the scene with some Earth refugees and his ship enables Obi to go on a mission at the behest of the erstwhile Mondführer (Udo Kier, again) to retrieve a powerful vessel containing “Vril-Ya”. And so, with Donald, Sasha, and beefcake Malcom (Kit Dale), Obi rigs the Russian’s clapped-out vessel for a final journey … to the Center of the Earth!

I’ll spare you more plot rehashing to segue now into just what it is Vuorensola is trying to do here: everything he can. There are explosions, chase scenes, cults, backstabbings, and Vril-Hitler on an allosaurus. Whatever enthusiasm Udo Kier lacked in the first movie, he makes up for with his double role as a pair of ancient alien brothers who… ah, but that’s some more plot. There’s just so much plot in this movie, and while the rational part of my brain knows that this isn’t a good thing, the softer side of my brain laughed loudly very regularly. This movie pokes fun at everything: iPhone advocates (the send-up of the iconic “1984” Apple commercial is a treat), conspiracy theorists, blockbuster classics (including, but not limited to, The Planet of the Apes and Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade), Vladimir Putin… Like a young Mel Brooks with half the talent but twice the sense of urgency, Vuorensola just does not stop.

I wouldn’t want to risk this site’s credibility by slapping a ” label on this, but I haven’t had so much fun watching a movie in quite a while. A caveat, though, is that I can easily turn my brain off as the situation demands: if you go into this movie thinking, you’ll think I’m some sort of idiot for enjoying it. But Tom Green was great as a silly-sinister cult leader, Kit Dale somehow managed to make his “red shirt” death wish boy scout both funny and charismatic, and Udo Kier just felt right as dinosaur-riding Hitler. Of course there’s a set up for a third installment, and I look forward to seeing what nonsense they get up to on Mars. Catch you on the Red Planet, comrade.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This better-funded, more lavish sequel seeks to be equally engaging and wacky, but the result is an incoherent if well-made mess that will find most favour with the more fervent devotees of ‘trash’ cinema.”–Dave Aldridge, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IRON SKY (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Götz Otto, Stephanie Paul, Udo Kier

PLOT: Having regrouped on the dark side of the moon, the Fourth Reich finds that the computing power of a visiting astronaut’s smart-phone is just what they need to launch their super-ship, “Götterdämmerung,” and conquer the Earth.

Still from Iron Sky (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As one of the last places for narrative fiction to wedge them, the whole “Nazis-on-the-moon” thing isn’t so strange. The movie itself is merely a tongue-in-cheek  diversion that errs on the side of (sometimes) dumb humor over anything weird. A serious dissection of the premise’s socio-military implications, however, would have been a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: Unlike the fabled whalers of old, Nazis on the Moon found a great deal to do during their stay. Though this isn’t the first vision of that possibility, Tim Vuorensola is probably the first film-maker to pull the trigger on it, and he provides an intermittently funny send-up of classic science fiction, B-movie sensibilities, and even a bit of political commentary. The combined efforts of maybe a dozen European production companies, as well as some crowd-funding (including me, having drunkenly splashed out eight years ago for a limited edition copy one evening) resulted in Iron Sky.

Earth-side, we root for a Sarah Palin-esque president of the United States (Stephanie Paul). She sends a black astronaut, James Washington (Christopher Kirby) to the moon as a PR stunt for her re-election. Moon-side, the Fourth Reich is ruled by Mondführer Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier, dropping in for a paycheck and a chance to hold the ceremonial “Führer baton”), with his right-hand man Klaus Adler (Götz Otto). Stuck in the middle is Renate Richter (Julia Dietze), daughter of the Reich’s preeminent scientist, as well as a 97% genetic (and therefore, romantic) match of Klaus. After Washington stumbles across the Nazi base, he is captured, and the fascists discover his smartphone. With it, their super weapon almost gets up and running, only for the phone battery to die. So, off go Klaus and Renate to the Earth to pick up a new machine and lay the groundwork for a full-scale invasion.

So far, so good(-ish). The story, such as it is, doesn’t really pick up until about the halfway point, with the long-form introduction acting primarily as an opportunity to crack wise about Nazis, race relations (Washington has an African-American persona straight from the mid-’90s), and the trajectory of US politics. [efn_note]Having had Iron Sky on my shelf since it came out on DVD, I only just watched it for the first time a few days ago; let me say that a Sarah Palin elected in 2018 would have turned out to be a comparative relief.[/efn_note] Beyond the premise, though, the only things that stand out are the art direction—the ominous, sleek, and deadly armaments look just as you imagine real Nazis would want their space machines to look—and costuming (for similar reasons). I just wish…

I just wish, I suppose, that Vuorensola had put more time and effort into the script. Shortly before writing this, I found that I had only watched the “theatrical” cut, which he was obliged to throw together very quickly to make before the premier at the Berlinale Film Festival, instead of the “Dictator’s Cut”, which has twenty more minutes fleshing out characters and scenes. With that in mind, I’ll advise a “Probably Recommended” for that version, because even in its slapdash form it maintains a good pace and has enough laugh-out-loud moments to justify itself. Only a humorless sourpuss should not-see it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ultimately, ‘Iron Sky’ is neither good enough to rep a proper breakout hit nor bad enough that it might attain cult status; it’s just kind of lame, the worst of all possible worlds.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)

Tras el Crystal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Günter Meisner, , Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes

PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.

Still from In a Glass Cage (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.

COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.

Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying  warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.

The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.

Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the film’s characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing… easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.”–Chris Gallant, Kinoeye, Nov. 2002

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

1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation subgenre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity, but it’s also derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

Behind Convent Walls (directed by ) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, ‘s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (below). remade DotD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

‘s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis () warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. , Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, , and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by ) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre () and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. Continue reading 1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY