Tag Archives: Psychedelic

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

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DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

15*. CASINO ROYALE (1967)

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DIRECTED BY: , , , , , (uncredited)

FEATURING: , David Niven, Ursula Andress, , , , Joanna Pettet, Deborah Kerr

PLOT: The “real” James Bond is recalled from retirement to fight agents of SMERSH. To help his cover, MI6 decides to re-name all their agents “James Bond.” The story loosely follows the maneuvers and misadventures of these various Bonds.

Still from Casino Royale (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • This movie is based on author Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel of the same title. The rights were originally sold to producer Gregory Ratoff, then resold to agent/producer Charles K. Feldman upon Ratoff’s passing.
  • Eon Productions was the chief source of the James Bond franchise, but deals between Eon and Feldman to adapt Casino Royale fell through. After several false starts at producing a straight version of the Bond story (with both Cary Grant and Sean Connery considered for the starring role), Feldman struck a deal with Columbia Pictures, opting to make his Bond movie a spoof of the genre instead.
  • Amid an already-troubled production, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles famously quarreled, resulting in the former storming off the set, which required some re-shoots using body doubles.
  • It is alleged that Peter Sellers was eager to play James Bond for real and was disappointed to find out this was a spoof.
  • Dusty Springfield’s rendition of “The Look of Love” got an Oscar nomination. Later versions of the song made the Billboard Hot 100 at #22 in November of 1967, and cover versions have since appeared in everything from Catch Me If You Can (2002) to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) (which was partly inspired by Casino Royale).
  • Despite this movie’s reputation as a flop, it still made $41.7 million back on a $12 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eenie meenie miney moe: we’ll pick the scene where Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) has taken Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) hostage, Bond-villain style. As Andress is restrained naked under barely-concealing metal bands, Allen menaces her in his groovy ’60s dungeon by playing a piano, socking a punching bag with the “real” James Bond’s face on it, and riding on a mechanical bull.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Duck decoy missiles; bagpipe machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In the same vein as Skidoo (1968) and North (1994), Casino Royale is a star-studded parable teaching us that shoveling big-name talent and money into a movie won’t necessarily make it any better. Before you even approach the jaw-dropping cast, you already have too many cooks (six directors and a veritable army of writers) spoiling the stew. The 131 minute run-time is overstuffed with everything the producers could cram in, whether it works or not. Saturated with weirdness, viewers will be burned out from the endless blathering nonsense long before this silly excess ends.

Original trailer for Casino Royale (1967)

COMMENTS: “What were they thinking?” That’s a query repeated Continue reading 15*. CASINO ROYALE (1967)

CAPSULE: IN THE EARTH (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, ,

PLOT: During a pandemic, a park ranger guides a young scientist to join up with a lone biologist conducting an experiment deep in the forest, but an ancient spirit may be stirring.

Still from In the Earth (2021)COMMENTS: It seems that a forest has grown over that old Field in England through the centuries, but ancient necromantic and alchemical evils still have their roots deeply embedded there. Locals talk of the legend of the pagan demigod “Parnang Fegg,” who may haunt the woods into which Martin and Alma venture in search of the reclusive Dr. Wendle. As they penetrate deeper into the forest, the scary-enough realities of their pandemic-ridden civilization are overrun by cthonic horrors. Is the evil caused by the vengeful forest deity; by a misunderstood alien biology, as Dr. Wendle suggests; or is it merely a group madness stemming from the local fungi that jet their spores into the atmosphere?

“I wouldn’t try to make any logical sense of it,” cautions Dr. Wendle. Indeed, In the Earth isn’t built around logical explanations, or even around its characters. Instead, everything exists for the sake of three intense and immersive psychedelic montages—all flash and bang, sound and light—evoking horrors both ancient and current. Protagonist Martin grounds the film in bodily insecurity; he’s out-of-shape due to lack of exercise during quarantine, and  suffering from a nasty recurrent case of ringworm, too. As the film goes on, characters will suffer gruesome injuries, dwelt on in sickening closeups—anyone with a foot trauma phobia may want to avoid this one. But when the spore mist fills the air, the horrors migrate from the body to the mind.

Despite the minimalist four-characters-in-a-forest setup, In the Earth will play best in theaters; you need that big screen and surround sound for the complete experience. It all starts with the sound design, embedded in the rustling forest and anchored by another superb Clint Mansell score, all highlighted by a disturbing electronic cacophony played from the speakers hooked up to the trees. (The soundtrack can get startlingly abrasive, but it always puts you right in the middle of the film’s nightmares: it can be hard to distinguish the diegetic effects from sonic hallucinations added in post-production.) Then the visuals come on: fast cuts of experimental effects, mushrooms and dandelions bent by fish-eye lenses, red dyes spreading through oil, shots that look like you’re staring right through the floaters in your retina and the veins in your eyelids as bright light penetrates your eyeballs. Shadowy figures flash for milliseconds in the strobe lights. They aren’t being overcautious with that epilepsy warning, folks. I’d predict this one will end up as a minor drug culture favorite.

Wheatley conceived and wrote In the Earth soon after the pandemic hit, and shot it even faster (a fifteen day shooting schedule was all that was required). Still, it doesn’t feel rushed so much as in-the-moment. There is a certain refreshing humility to In the Earth—this is not a lavish, elaborately-planned-out multi-million dollar spectacle, but something the director has made out of necessity, adapting to circumstance. He made it because he has to make movies with whatever resources are available; if Covid-19 has temporarily shut down the studios, he’ll take his camera and a skeleton crew out to the woods. Good for him.

My only reservation is that In the Earth feels a little too much like an update of A Field in England, with flashier color trips and an overlay of pandemic anxiety, but minus the eccentric feel and esoteric setting. In the Earth isn’t entirely new ground for Ben Wheatley, but it taps into the zeitgeist and delivers its hefty payload of cosmic/folk/body/WTF horror with spiffy efficiency. If you’re a reader of this site, there’s an excellent chance that it’s right in your wheelhouse. After all, check out a small but representative sample of negative IMDB reviews: “Beyond weird and horrible”; “i have no idea what it was about”; “makes me feel like I should’ve taken acid before going to the film so I could understand what was going on.” If those quotes don’t get you excited to check this one out, I don’t know what will.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wheatley’s always been most effective prowling around in the murky depths of the subconscious, and ‘In the Earth’ — which is raw and weird and deeply unsettling, like a fungus found growing in some long-ignored abscess — well, this piece of work has his fingerprints all over it.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LIGHT YEARS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Colin Thompson

FEATURING: Colin Thompson, Russell Posner, Makenzie Leigh

PLOT: A man takes psychedelic mushrooms on the anniversary of his friend’s death and relives a mushroom trip they had together when they were sixteen.

Still from Light Years (2019)

COMMENTS: The hinted-at plot in Light Years never really develops. Instead, what happens is that we watch a trio of likable kids nervously score mushrooms, take mushrooms, try to hold it together without their parents finding out they’re high on mushrooms, go to a high school party on mushrooms, chop wood at midnight (on… you get the idea), and generally just hang out. The movie is light, as its title implies. The mood is nostalgic, like The Wonder Years—on mushrooms. There’s not a lot in the way of a meaningful ongoing story— although there are lots of incidents—and really only token character development. The story is framed as an elegy for Kevin’s friend Briggs, who died under circumstances that aren’t relevant to the movie, and what it does well is to capture the carefree pleasure of teenage camaraderie. You can tell, without even looking at the end credits disclaimer stating that the film was inspired by actual events, that it’s based on writer/director Colin Thompson’s real life experiences. There’s no other possible explanation for the movie’s existence.

The acting is unexpectedly decent. Pimply Briggs (Russell Posner) actually looks and acts like a high school sophomore, with an unselfconscious awkwardness and endearingly goofy mannerisms, like the ghoulish open-faced smile he routinely breaks into. He and Kevin have a real chemistry, sharing a private ritual where they spar with improvised dialogue in increasingly silly voices. This chemistry is more remarkable due to the fact that young Kevin is (most of the time) played by old Kevin, the heavily-stubbled-and-clearly-not-a-teenager Colin Thompson. Thompson also plays—again, most of the time—the third friend, Larry; and, in drag, he also takes the roles of his own ex, and the mom of the kid who’s throwing a keg party for the high schoolers and bringing along a tray of jello shots, and a lot of the extras. All these Kevins appear partly because of a subtext that Kevin is a narcissist. But mainly it’s just a part of the director’s trip-disorientation strategy, one that also includes abrupt changes in film stock, occasional collage-style montages and music videos, video warping and glitching, and animated characters appearing in the unused corners of the film (recurring cartoon characters like a cutout of adult Kevin’s dog, and some kind of derp-faced flying cat in a sailor cap).

The thought that Light Years inspires most in me is the question: is psychedelic cinema a legitimate subgenre? Despite the possibilities for deep introspection psychedelics promise, the “trip movie” rarely features any kind of serious plot or philosophy; it’s almost always an excuse for stylistic and technical experimentation. A short line of (almost) non-narrative movies beginning with The Trip seek to recreate the feeling and experience of being on psychedelic drugs for the audience. The hallucinatory qualities of psychedelics are easy (and fun!) to symbolize visually, but the experience of having your brain’s natural neurotransmitters temporarily pranked by chemical interlopers—the complex combination of euphoria, wonder, anxiety and confusion—is harder to reproduce. In the most successful trip film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, scenes of Hunter S. Thompson enjoying cocktails in a Vegas lounge surrounded by kitschy dinosaurs, or trying to redeem his hotel reservation while the desk clerk’s face warps unpredictably, effectively recreate the edginess of druggy disorientation. But that movie works on multiple levels: as drug porn, sure, but also as a straight-out comedy, and as a dual-edged social satire of both the dominant 1960s culture and of the very subculture it superficially celebrates. Light Years is not quite light years away from that achievement, but it does suggest that hallucinations alone can only take a movie so far. LSD has been around, on film and in life, for six decades now; it’s no longer novel or outrageous, merely naughty. A trip is not enough to sustain a great film; you need a plot and/or a deeper theme to carry you across the finish line.

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: FRIED BARRY (2020)

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

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Kruger

FEATURING: Gary Green

PLOT: Heroin addict Barry is possessed by a creature from outer space.

Still from Fried Barry (2020)

COMMENTS: Looking like a pre-mortem Crypt Keeper but with a glorious goatee, Gary Green’s gaunt visage may be Fried Barry‘s greatest asset. It’s not surprising that someone would want to build a film around that face, even if for most of the movie it does nothing but stare blankly. Balding, but with long stringy hair (and thin, but with a surprisingly cut physique), Green looks the part of a deteriorating addict under constant threat of eviction. I enjoyed looking at that face even when the attached film dragged it into shaggy, often improvised vignettes.

The movie begins with “adults only and no one else!” content disclaimer promising (er, I mean, warning of) “explicit language, nudity, and strong scenes of high impact sexual violence…” The explicit language box is simple enough to check off. There is nudity—and some awkward fully-clothed sex—because, apparently, bedraggled aliens with bug-eyed stares attract the ladies like flies. There is also plenty of violence, but not really any “high impact” sexual violence (it’s indirect, homophobic sexual violence). There is, on the other hand, a lot of senseless non-sexual violence—including an uncharacteristic detour into torture porn that ends in a chainsaw battle—if that counts for anything. What the presenter in the opening didn’t warn about was the public toilet sex, hospital corridor pooping, or adult breastfeeding. Or the hard drug porn: whether it be old-fashioned shooting up, complementary club ecstasy, or random junk smoked out of a light bulb, all of Barry’s friends (and about half of the random strangers he meets on the street) want to get him high for free. And what the presenter especially doesn’t warn you about is the insta-birth alien conception scene…

In other words, Fried Barry‘s exploitation credentials check out. There are also decent dollops of weirdness in its nearly structureless runtime. Ten minutes into the movie Barry shoots up, finds himself submerged underwater, has flashbacks, sees colored lights, and levitates into the heavens. Then, some weird stuff happens in what we assume is an alien spacecraft. After returning to Earth, he takes a few more psychedelic trips, becomes a dad, uses his eyelids as remote controls, has visions of an old guy singing in tongues while doing a soft-shoe routine, and makes a highly illogical escape from the loony bin. These snatches of madness break up his odd encounters with various prostitutes, lowlifes, and eerily cheerful cheese-sample pushers.

Fried Barry is part of a mini-tradition of movies about mute or verbally challenged outsiders/aliens wandering about urban areas, holding up mirror to society. There’s more than a little Bad Boy Bubby (1993) here: Barry speaks no dialogue save what he repeats, and his son is even named “Bubby,” in what surely must be a tribute. Barry also can heal like the Brother from Another Planet (1984); at least, he does so once. There’s a touch of Under the Skin (2013), too, and maybe even a drop of Liquid Sky (1982). For all the nods, Fried Barry brings nothing new to this particular table. What it especially doesn’t bring is any kind of visible ideas. Barry’s ordeal is most naturally viewed as one long, drug-induced psychosis. If you take the story at face value, it’s a sci-fi film about aliens who travel across the inky blackness of space to South Africa so they can possess heroin addicts and… who don’t have much of a plan beyond that. Fried Barry won’t give you any great sociological or existential insights, but if it’s a mindbending trip to the outer limits of consciousness you’re after, it’s a lot safer than sticking a needle in your arm—or being beamed up by saucers.

Giles Edwards adds: Fried Barry left me feeling that pleasantly odd, detached sensation I get when I watch a weird movie, and so I make this pitch on its behalf for Apocryphizing. The lead’s performance alone is a continuous oddity–almost 100 minutes of jittery reactions. Gary Green is always interesting to look at, and observing his “Barry” go through four drug overdoses (that I could count) was impressive. With virtually no dialogue for his character, it was like watching the half-awake facsimile of Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks: the Return stumble, dance, and twitch through two jam-packed days full of run-ins with thugs, unlikely escapes, and even the daring rescue of a dozen kidnapped children.

The lighting and score of Fried Barry supplement Green’s spastic tics, rendering his forty-eight-hour (?) journey somewhere between reality and unreality, further rendering the unreal somewhere between an exalted and sinister dream. In particular, Barry’s abduction comes across as an unsettling fusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a H.R. Geiger-saturated nightmare. The pulsing electro-score and violently-hued color schemes add a shining varnish to Barry’s jerking physical flow. When the ominous “Intermission” sequence spooled on-screen, I finally gave up on trying to guess where the heck this movie was going and let myself sit back to enjoy the wild fried.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy exploration of mankind.”–Norman Gidney, Horror Buzz

366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW

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DIRECTED BY: Nick Gatsby

FEATURING: Eric Willis, Scott Mitchell

PLOT: A hapless tenant finds himself dying at the hands of his neighbor over and over again.

Still from My Neighbor Wants Me Dead (2019)

COMMENTS: There’s a grandeur that kicks off Nick Gatsby’s first feature film that is both beautiful and disorienting. Haunting choral music, haunting wind sounds, and a haunting, burning moon (?) behind scraggly, leafless branches. The moon turns green, and there is a cut—appropriately—to psychedelically-lit puzzle pieces. This abstraction crops up throughout the rest of the film: interesting shots cut up by post-production static, over-exposure, jump cuts, and—my favorite—hilarious intertitles. With what seems like zero dollars on hand, but plenty of focus for fastidious editing and micro-effects, Gatsby has put together a creative anomaly; I wouldn’t describe it as a movie, per se, but it would hold its own among the video installations I’ve enjoyed at various modern art museums.

The story, such as it is, remains basic: a man mysteriously appears in a chair, slumped over. He awakens and is quickly menaced by a (largely) unseen neighbor. He’s about to be killed, and on a very short timer. Looming butterflies act as harbingers. Skulls appear, tiki bars are disregarded, and only in the fifth iteration do things seemingly fall into place.

Watching My Neighbor Wants Me Dead with a group was apt, as the chatter (pleasant though it was) acted as something of a distraction. And wouldn’t you know, the film’s tagline is “A film about distractions.” More than most (more straight-forward) narratives, My Neighbor lends itself to multiple interpretations. I saw it as a meditation on depression: the protagonist continually tries and fails to survive and get out of his door. Distractions subsume him: the promise of a “Tiki Bar,” threats from his neighbor, and even idly wandering through his barren apartment. Knowing a thing or two about depression myself, I know that one of the main challenges it presents the sufferer with is distraction: a simple, but driving distraction from being able to just face the day.

Gatsby earns plenty of bonus points for style, and several more for the oddball humor sprinkled throughout. There’s a cartoon intermission, plenty of ragtime music, and obscenely pictographed phrases during the intertitles. The ending did elicit a bit of, “Well, I should have seen that coming…”; but seeing as how I didn’t, I can’t complain. I am glad to say that I look forward to Gatsby’s next (great?) outing.

BONUS INTERVIEW: In the final minutes of the screening, filmmaker Nick Gatsby mysteriously appeared, telecommuting from his bunker in Colorado. The 366 crew all chipped in questions for him about his film. Continue reading 366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW

CAPSULE: SPINDRIFT’S HAUNTED WEST (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Burke Roberts

FEATURING: The members of “Spindrift”

PLOT: Four musicians record sights and sounds from their “Ghost Town Tour” in a pastiche of performances, wandering about acid-infused scenery.

Still from Spindrift's Haunted West (2020)

COMMENTS: What better way to write a movie review than while listening to that movie’s music in the background? Normally I don’t have the film playing while I write my reviews, but having reached the half-way mark in Spindrift’s Haunted West, I have figured out what’s going on and can be certain of two things.

The first thing: this isn’t really a movie. Haunted West begins in wide (wide wide) screen, its opening credits over what could be the establishing shot of a top-tier spaghetti western. Blue sky, jagged hillside, and a day-time moon lurking above. But Spindrift quickly show their hands in the opening scene: the band wanders around a derelict town while their music plays non-diegetically. Things move forward, in their meandering way, with shots from performances in historical saloons, shots from performances around campfires, and the occasional music-video-esque backdrop of gibbets, “Olde West” thoroughfares, and some neat-o pointy rock sites.

The second thing: Haunted West is the perfect thing to play on a grainy projector with dodgy speakers during your next Western-themed party. Delaware-born band leader Kirkpatrick Thomas must have spent a youth saturated in Western movies, Western television shows, and acid rock. His band’s sound veers from Prog-Western to Ballad-Western to Acid-Wibblies, with even some visits from what I can only describe as “Mariachi Luau.” The one constant is an Ennio Morricone vibe, as might be expected; Morricone was God’s gift to Spaghetti Westerns.

I often mention the length of short movies–whether it be a comment on efficient story-telling or a bafflement at how something so short could seem so long. Spindrift’s Haunted West moseys onto the screen, showcases some considerable musical talent, and then moseys away. This travelogue music video is a much better investment for your seventy-seven minutes than some movies I could mention, so pull out the Bulleit, slap on a stetson, and rock on, rock in, and rock out with Spindrift.

WHAT THE TOMBSTONE SAYS:

“Here lies George Johnson / Hanged by mistake / 1882 / He was right, we was wrong / But we strung him up & now he’s gone.”