Tag Archives: Recommended

CAPSULE: SASQUATCH SUNSET (2024)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner

FEATURING: , Christophe Zajac-Denek, , Nathan Zellner

PLOT: A fictional nature documentary following a family of four (at first) Sasquatch trying to survive in the Pacific Northwest.

Still from Sasquatch Sunset (2024)

COMMENTS: Sasquatch Sunset has to think up some creative solutions to overcome the central problem of the premise, which is: it’s absolutely nuts. It’s a vignette-based, documentary-style work of imaginary anthropology about a mythical subspecies, starring a couple of famous actors who are unrecognizable in their Bigfoot fursuits, liberally spattered with sex and scatology. The fact that such an noncommercial property was able to get greenlit is a testament to the pull of “name” producers like and Jesse Eisenberg. The fact that it is an unlikely success is a credit to the talents of the Zellner brothers, who continue to push the oddball envelope after the cult success of their supernatural TV satire “The Curse.”

Sasquatch Sunset‘s chief gambit to keep you watching is to pepper its Animal Planet-esque scenes of a quartet of Bigfeet foraging for food and shelter with comedy—particularly, grossout comedy. There’s a Sasquatch sex scene in the first fifteen minutes, a bit of slapstick with a turtle who gets treated like a cellphone, skunk sniffing, and so on. You learn more about the Sasquatch reproductive system than you would ever want to know, capped by an unforgettable use for Bigfoot placenta. Perhaps the grossest and most absurd scene occurs when the family discovers a logging road, which disorients them so much with its unnatural regularity that they break into spastic gibbering fits and spontaneously evacuate all over themselves (including shock lactation.) Between these moments, you drink in the natural beauty of Pacific Northwest logging country, with its majestic redwoods, and try to count the infinite stars (along with one Bigfoot who can’t count past “ugh.”)

While the movie is entertaining you in its unpredictable way, it is also sneaking in empathy for its subjects—and making you wonder just how human they are. The beasts have humanizing traits and a sense of natural curiosity; the youngest even has an imaginary friend. Be prepared for family members to pass away, in grotesque and painful ways, and new ones to join the clam, at less than replacement rate. And, although no humans are seen (we are apparently as mythical to Bigfeet as they are to us), evidence of our presence sneaks in frequently; the mere sight of a red “X” on a sawed-down redwood confuses the anthropods, but raises alarm in us viewers. Several times, the Sasquatch family enacts a strange branch-banging ritual that suggests that they are more intellectually developed than they seem, and which may have a wistful significance.

The obvious precursors for Sasquatch Sunset are two works by Jean-Jacques Annaud: the prehistoric Quest for Fire (1981) and the ursine bildungsroman The Bear (1988). Both are fictional features set in primeval landscapes; the first uses a fake language of mostly caveman grunts, and the second has no dialogue at all. It’s a specialized subgenre, but one that was overdue for a revival. Scatological comedy was an unexpected addition to the formula, but one which makes intuitive sense; these pseudo-humans don’t share our bathroom taboos. But, as the melancholy title and odd ending makes clear, this story is a tragedy, not a comedy. At the end, the survivors stand in a world that’s not their own. They are the end of the line, their numbers are unsustainable, and their morphology is soon to become nothing more than an iconic curio suitable only for a roadside attraction.

One note: a lot of cinemas reported walkouts during screenings: often the sign of a weird movie, but in this case maybe the sign of a gross movie. This was not the case when I watched it, as I was the only one in the theater.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Consistently weird and frequently wonderful, ‘Sasquatch Sunset’ uses its high-concept premise to consider a host of themes: collective living, coexistence with nature, longing stirred by seclusion.”–Natalia Winkelman, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE TUNE (1992)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bill Plympton

FEATURING: Voices of Daniel Neiden, , Marty Nelson, Emily Bindiger, Chris Hoffman

PLOT: A tunesmith on a tight deadline races to make a meeting with an impatient music producer, but gets lost in the wacky town of Flooby Nooby en route.

Still from The Tune (1992)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: In Flooby Nooby you can enjoy love-struck food pairings, consult with a macrocephalic metamorphing wise man (named “Gus”), check into a heartsick hotel staffed by a bell-boy-cum-suicide-assistant, ride with a cabbie suffering the “No Nose Blues,” and learn a jig or two from eternally dancing surfers. Is that enough?

COMMENTS: From nothing, comes the great hand of the Creator. It rises through the beigeful void and crashes toward us, blackening the screen. And then,

.

.

.

*THUNK*. We are grounded by a discordant slam of notes, and who do you think we see? Whose mighty hand have we witnessed? Why, it’s none other than Del, a love-smitten schlub trying to noodle out the final line of his number-one hit tune. So begins the eccentric, caricaturist charm of The Tune, as Bill Plympton bangs out an oddball voyage for his oh-so-mild-mannered protagonist.

What little narrative there is in The Tune exists to permit Plympton to dig deeply into his bag of tricks. After Del travels the crazy nested loops of highway on his way to his boss, the few nods to mundane reality are cast aside in favor of eccentric characters, daffy tunes, and the awe-inspiring power of an animator’s pencil.

Del’s surreal encounters never let up upon arrival in the unlikely town of Flooby Nooby, where he is greeted by the mayor with a zingy song expounding the virtues of this small town (accompanied by some horrible whistling, no less). Del meets a wary dog—doesn’t trust out of town folk, you see, with their heartless ways—who eventually morphs into a crooning Elvis canine belting out a stomping rock number about his improbably tall hairdo. Perspective comes and goes as trees shrink along a path, or as Del climbs a set of stairs and encounters a gentleman traveling downwards, walking along the steps’ rise. Heads (so many heads) morph to the point of breaking, but seamlessly pop back into form. “Gus” the Wise One suffers more than most—trains travel in and around it, burgers fly forth from his mouth, a fish is drawn from a forehead drawer, and so on—when his idiotic truisms go a step too far: “Just as a slice into a loaf of bread makes two pieces, you must multiply your wisdom.”

The ramble toward the climax is appropriately relaxed, and at one point Del inquires to the camera, “Why am I watching this?” The context is an extended (and gloriously masturbatory) sequence between two randos who obliterate each other’s faces through increasingly elaborate methods. Plympton more than hints at the pointlessness, but the pointlessness is the point. This is a cheery cartoon, stuffed to the gills with cheery airs, and its unceasing frivolousness underscores the sophistication of the craft. It’s a film where the line “Mr Mayor! How could you eat that adorable—and talented—hamburger?” is a sensible question. It’s got surf rock pathos and soulful noselessness. It has a Fat, Falling Pig hotel death suite and a Bad Joke Tango. The Tune is a Kantian ding an sich, hatching from nothingness and forging a wiggly world of absurdist tomfoolery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Plympton’s first feature is a surreal surety, chock full of brilliant gags, decent tunes, and lots of unobtrusive heart: it’s 78 minutes of unrelenting fun.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE PIED PIPER (1986)

Krysař [AKA Ratcatcher]

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Oldřich Kaiser, , Michal Pavlíček, Vilém Čok

PLOT: A retelling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’: a town is overrun by rats, a piper is hired to get rid of them, and when the town leaders renege on their agreement… it’s not good.

Still from The Pied Piper (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA : It’s a visually striking adaptation, and the uncompromising mood and tone is equally striking. It’s not your average children’s Christmas special—and it still remains a relevant and timely tale.

COMMENTS: Genuine folktales are not known for being warm, snuggly, and uplifting; ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ is definitely not so. It’s centered on rat genocide, with financial deal-breaking and child kidnapping as mere side dishes. Adapting it to family-friendly entertainment programming can be an especially tricky business, ending up soft-pedalling some elements of the tale, usually by adding songs and turning it into a musical.1

Intended as a children’s Christmas special for Czech television, Barta’s adaptation could have gone that route. Two previous directors had been fired for not taking a light enough approach to the material. But Barta, going back to source (mainly a 1915 novella by Viktor Dyk, as well as the original tale) instead leaned even further into the dark elements. In this iteration, the term “rat” doesn’t just apply to the usual rodents. In mammals, there’s little difference between rats and men; well, maybe the 4-legged kind aren’t as overtly cruel as the 2-legged.

The film opens on morning in Hamelin. The grinding of gears in the town clock chime to start the day as the townspeople scurry to do business: toiling laborers and craftsmen, coin minters, haggling merchants and customers, and merchants cheating customers. There are also cruelties: a rat killed for stealing pastry, the jeweler who barbs a necklace to cut the skin of the woman who will try it on, and the gluttony of the leaders of Hamelin as they indulge their appetites to obscene excess.

Business continues; people scurry to and fro, trying to get whatever coin they can, which goes into hidden stashes, while the rats grab whatever leftovers they can… behavior blackly reinforced in the overnight actions of the subterranean rat community.

The town is wealthy, corrupt, and debased—overrun by rats. And in this iteration, it gets what it deserves: the Exterminator. (It’s worth noting that the translation of the original title is “The Ratcatcher,” which is much more fitting to the mood and tone.)

Not your average children’s television special, certainly. But it was successful, both in Czechoslovakia and worldwide. Much of that success is rooted in the onscreen artistry: the design of the production is incredible, intricately textured with puppets carved from walnut and characters rendered in Cubist style—the angularity emphasizing their grotesque natures. The Piper himself resembles a gaunt specter of Death.

No one is innocent in this take, aside from a fisherman, an infant, and a female who comes to an unfortunate end. The Piper has come to cleanse the town of all of its rats. A glimmer of hope and happiness comes to fruition at the end—but only after the cleansing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Barta doesn’t radically divert from the legend, but there are surreal touches to ‘The Pied Piper’ to keep it interesting and dark, examining the brutality of rats and men, with the helmer going expressionistic and pitiless as he mounts his take on the central betrayal.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

HOME VIDEO INFO: In 2023, Deaf Crocodile issued a Region A Blu-ray featuring a new restoration of the film with a commentary by Czech film expert Irena Kovarova and film historian Peter Hames. Also included is a restored Barta short, “The Vanished World of Gloves”; “Chronicle of the Pied Piper”, a behind-the-scenes featurette on the production; a new interview with Barta; and a booklet essay by Kovarova.

  1. The exception to this may be the 1972 musical adaptation directed by Jacques Demy, featuring Donovan, Donald Pleasance, and John Hurt, with music by Donovan. This writer has not seen it but from the description, it seems to be a fitting candidate for us to feature in the future. ↩︎

CAPSULE: RIDDLE OF FIRE (2023)

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Riddle of Fire is currently available for VOD rental or purchase. Blu-ray release coming later this year.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Weston Razooli

FEATURING: Phoebe Ferro, Charlie Stover, Skyler Peters, Charles Halford, Lio Tipton, Lorelei Olivia Mote

PLOT: Three miscreant kids search for a speckled egg they need to get the password to the TV, encountering a real-life witch on their quest.

Still from RIDDLE OF FIRE (2023)

COMMENTS: Riddle of Fire plays out like one of those kid-centered live-action Disney movies of the 70s, if the tykes were foul-mouthed (but still endearing) thieves, and the director was a drugged-out hippie. Tomboy Alice, chaste love-interest Hazel, and young Jodie (whose incongruously adult one-liners are all duplicated in subtitles in case you have trouble understanding his adoewabul accent) have no idea how good they have it on summer vacation, riding around big sky country on dirtbikes with paintball guns and no responsibilities. Preferring air-conditioned adventures, they hatch an elaborate plan to steal a next-generation video game console, but find their summer ruined when they discover mom has password-protected the smart TV. Suffering from a cold that will soon send her into a NyQuil coma, mom agrees to allow them to play for two hours if they bring her a blueberry pie. This sets the trio off on a quest which proves increasingly complicated, as they cannot obtain the pastry without first completing a series of mini-quests, culminating in the search for the film’s big MacGuffin, a lucky speckled egg. Unfortunately, the last carton of such eggs falls into the hands of a gruff “huntsman,” who also serves as hired muscle for a cult of taxidermist witches (who have a whole Mandy-for-kids vibe going on).

Shot on 16mm film (a choice that reinforces the antique feel) in summer-green mountain forests, this “neo-fairy tale” is an American folktale for the Playstation age. The landscape is speckled with red amanita toadstools, suggesting the permeating prevalence of witchcraft, while also nodding to the drug culture. The three (later four) moppets are all likable, despite being pint-sized hoodlums; their “us against the adult world” solidarity makes them easy to root for, and their loyalty to their sick mom softens their brattiness. The script, which incorporates video game tropes as naturally as fairy tale ones, is tightly constructed, leaving little to chance in its intricate web.

Although it mostly plays as a kiddie adventure flick of the type common in the 70s and into the 80s, Riddle of Fire puts oddball spins on the material whenever it can. Even taking the magical realist element of “The Enchanted Blade Gang” out of the picture, the tale has the feeling of a childhood memory: half-experienced, half-imagined, with off-key notes fluttering about. When the children steal their console, they celebrate by dancing around the prize singing a song that’s half old English nursery rhyme, half magical ritual. They sometimes slip words like “yon” or phrases like “that rather ghastly, chilling doll” into their casual conversations. Things really get strange in their 4 A.M. trip to “The Hall of Fortunes,” a mixture between a roadhouse bar and post-apocalyptic trading post where all the adults drink 40 ounces, and the only other kid in sight is painted blue and holding a trident. Since they’re unfamiliar with the adult world, the kids don’t have a sense of how terribly wrong this entire setup is; it’s a hallucination based on a hazy understanding of what grown-ups do when they’re not around.

The irony of these children undergoing the magical adventure of a lifetime in a quest to play in a much less imaginative digitized world is delicious. Somehow, we actually celebrate with the little reprobates when they achieve their goal of sitting on their butts and clicking buttons all day, which is a testament to how much we buy in to the crazy premise debuting director Razooli conjures here. Riddle of Fire is full of stylistic and cultural references, but somehow still feels largely sui generis; it will be fascinating to see where the newly minted auteur goes from here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… both grounded and fantastical, sweet and sad, a beautiful snapshot of childhood where kids are allowed to be weird little gremlins with opulent tastes and bad attitudes.”–Mary Beth McAndrews, Dread Central (contemporaneous)

47*. THE MYSTERIOUS CASTLE IN THE CARPATHIANS (1981)

Tajemství hradu v Karpatech

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“This story is not fantastic ; it is merely romantic. Are we to conclude that it is not true, its unreality being granted ? That would be a mistake. We live in times when everything can happen — we might almost say everything has happened. If our story does not seem to be true to-day, it may seem so to-morrow, thanks to the resources of science, which are the wealth of the future.”–Jules Verne, “The Castle of the Carpathians”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michal Docolomanský, , , , Evelyna Steimarová

PLOT: Despondent after a failed love affair, Count Teleke explores the Carpathians with his manservant in hopes of forgetting his misfortune. The pair discover a mysterious castle on a mountainside and a man half buried in the road, and make their way to the village of “West Werewolfston,” where they learn more legends about the stronghold. Accompanied by the buried man, a civil servant who’s also obsessed with the castle, Teleke decides to investigate the mysterious edifice, where an evil Baron and a mad scientist are developing a powerful weapon.

Still from The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For all the incredible gadgetry that appears in The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, the most unforgettable one may be the tiny pistol, no larger than a thumb, that the count pulls out to protect himself at the first sign of danger. (The bullets would have to be about the size of water drops, and locating the tiny trigger would be a chore).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyes and ears on a staff; desiccated diva

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the steampunk, slapstick Czech parody of Gothic literature you never knew you needed—until you heard it described in just those words.

Restoration trailer for Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians

COMMENTS: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the last entry in a loose Czech trilogy parodying genres popular in the West: Continue reading 47*. THE MYSTERIOUS CASTLE IN THE CARPATHIANS (1981)