8 out of 12 minutes survive of the earliest filmed adaptation of “,” restored (as well as possible) by the BFI.
DIRECTED BY: Jean Epstein
FEATURING: Charles Lamy, Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Abel Gance
PLOT: Roderick Usher invites an old friend to the portentous mansion where he lives in the company of the servants and his dying wife, Madeline, whose portrait he has been obsessively trying to paint.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Like it’s source material, Epstein’s silent film treatment of’s short story doesn’t explicitly depict any extraordinary phenomena, but the aura of metaphysical discomfort and mysterious menace is so pervasive that it lends it an oneiric character—one that’s likely to give a stronger and longer lasting impression than any more overt effect.
COMMENTS: Despite the expected controversy over the precise definition and characteristics of the movement (or whether it even qualifies as a movement), one could say that the underlying tenet of French Impressionism is the search for an emancipated cinematic language, with its own forms and techniques, in contrast to the “filmed theater” approach. Instead, cinema was to articulate, with its own unique means, certain realities (and modes of expressing them) that no other art-form could. Impressionist films focused on, among other things, subjective, psychological reality: dreams, madness and all sorts of altered states of consciousness, The methods necessary to compellingly bring it to life were unconventional camerawork, including character point-of-view perspectives, innovative editing techniques, a preoccupation with the visual composition of shots and their picturesque qualities (such as the contrasts between light and dark), etc.
With this said, it’s easy to see how such a movement proved vitally influential to weird cinema (and filmmaking in general)—as well as why it’s the perfect fit for an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And indeed, Jean Epstein aptly translates the author’s most revered hallmarks—a constant, underlying sense of unease—to the language of cinema. It’s so well-realized that the viewer can predict the house’s impending ruin even without the title. The suggestion of a spectral world of shadows and unconscious forces subtly advances on diurnal reality, and the persistent aura of mystery and the uncanny reveals itself at each new turn, be it in the enigmatic presence of Madeline Usher, in Roderick’s afflicted mood and behavior, or in the many disquieting details of the mansion and its surroundings.
The resulting atmosphere of dreamlike disquiet is sustained through the film’s runtime, as if the viewer were trapped in the elegant and ethereal matter of a cloud as it gradually darkens and thickens before the storm. And as overused as it might be, “atmosphere” is indeed the appropriate term, considering the amount of shots purely devoted to its establishment (the ominous images of Nature, the manor’s vast, empty spaces where nothing but the wind manifests itself)—especially when compared to the more practical approach Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)
DIRECTED BY: Estaban Sapir
FEATURING: Valeria Bertuccelli, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Rafael Ferro, Sol Moreno, Florencia Raggi, Jonathan Sandor
PLOT: In a town where the only person with a voice, The Voice, doesn’t have a face, Mr. TV has nefarious plans. When he kidnaps The Voice, her eyeless son and their neighbors must find her and stop Mr. TV before he can take what little they have left. Things come to a head during a boxing broadcast where Mr. TV attempts to suck all language out of the citizens.
- La Antena premiered at Rotterdam Festival (2007) and was the first ever film chosen to both open and compete in the festival.
- The movie was a runner-up for the Fantasia Film Festival Ground-Breaker Award, losing the first spot to Repo! The Genetic Opera.
- Made for a reported 1.5 million, the script was only 60 pages but the storyboard consisted of over 3,000 shots. Shooting took 11 weeks and post-production took more than a year.
- This was Estaban Sapir’s second feature film, and is his last completed work to date.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: An angry pixie girl inside an ever-snowing snow globe, with typewriter keys jutting from her helmet, a pacifier in her mouth, and arrows at her feet on which she plays a twisted version of Dance Dance Revolution as she turns the people’s voices into commodities.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyeless boy strapped to Star of David; family climbs crumpled paper mountain
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: La Antena meldswith by way of and , paying homage without feeling derivative. It’s a black and white, (mostly) silent film with subtitles that interact with the scenes. With inventive writing, bizarre characters, and whimsical sets, La Antena surprises throughout.
English-language festival trailer for La Antena
COMMENTS: Helmed by Argentinian writer/director Estaban Sapir, Continue reading 32*. LA ANTENA [THE AERIAL] (2006)
Yumemiru yôni nemuritai
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DIRECTED BY: Kaizô Hayashi
FEATURING: Shirô Sano, Koji Otake, Fujiko Fukamizu, Yoshio Yoshida
PLOT: A retired film star hires Uotsuka and Kobayashi, a pair of down-on-their-luck detectives, to track down her daughter Bellflower, who was kidnapped by riddle-loving criminals.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The detective genre is turned on its head and spell-bound to slumber in Kaizô Hayashi’s silent film debut. This playful noir is fueled by dream logic, pantomime capering, and a nostalgia more full-throated than ‘s—as well as hundreds of hard-boiled eggs.
COMMENTS: In the market for the best P.I. in town? Then look no further than the Uotsuka Detective Agency. Sure, his schedule may be empty—so much so that his chalkboard agenda has nothing more than a doodled face on it. And he may not have the best assistant—Kobayashi idles away his time riding a pneumatic horse. But Uotsuka is as hard-boiled as they come, as proven by his in-office hen and his egg-only diet. Fine, fine, he may not be the best for everyone, but for an aging silent film star whose daughter has disappeared, his knack for riddles and protein-fueled energy fits the bill perfectly.
Kaizô Hayashi places his love of nigh-lost cinema squarely in the foreground in To Sleep So As To Dream, his directorial (and screenwriting and producing) debut. He presents the film in the Academy ratio, records in black-and-white, and, in his clever way, makes a “silent” film. Audio effects (knocked doors, clinked metal, thumped guns) are sprinkled in judiciously, but there is no spoken dialogue from the on-screen characters, who communicate through facial expressions, gestures, and often-novel intertitle cards. (As the detective obsesses over the clue “General Tower,” those words completely fill the screen.) Two circumstances break this silence: whenever a recording is played—invariably from the kidnappers, whose love of money is matched only by their love of riddling—and in the presence of a benshi.
Another throw-back to classic Japanese cinema, the benshi was the live narrator of a silent film, telling the story and interpreting the on-screen action as a film is projected. This aural eccentricity underpins the embellished performances, making for a self-aware, but never parodying, silent-style experience. The combination of off-kilter and heightened reality makes To Sleep a creditable facsimile for a dream, and Kaizô is well aware of what he’s up to. Pursuing a trio of gyroscope-peddling magicians (a “chase” sequence I can only describe as “goofily suspenseful”), Uotsoka has a nasty run-in with a handful of goons and loses two million yen. After awakening from his wallop, he meets up with his client to reassure her, “…Bellflower and the money will be found—if the whole thing isn’t just a dream.”
Kaizô Hayashi is a film nostalgist, bringing to that embryonic genre his impressive visual sense and deft sound engineering to craft an experience both innovative and sentimental. (If To Sleep So As To Dream wasn’t an inspiration to, I’d be much surprised. ) Our experience of Uotsuka’s and Kobayashi’s serpentine meanderings through theme parks, carnivals, dreamscape movie theaters—and even a memory-warping film shoot—is what movies are all about: the bending of technique to vision so as to create storytelling art.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Cinema is of course a medium of dreams, and this metacinematic film about the belated, backward-looking pursuit of something as elusive as lost youth or a bygone medium certainly comes packed with elements of an oneiric nature. Not since Giulio Questi’s similarly surreal Death Laid An Egg, from 1968, had there been a film so singularly obsessed with chickens and eggs…”–Anton Bitel, Little White Lies (Blu-ray)
DIRECTED BY: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro
FEATURING: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano, Emilise Beretta, Augusto Milla
PLOT: In the company of the poet Virgil, Dante Alighieri descends into Hell, where he discovers the variety of malefactors consigned to the netherworld by their misdeeds on Earth and the array of torments visited upon them.
COMMENTS: When the pioneers of the Italian film industry set about creating the country’s first feature-length motion picture (a format still in its infancy in 1911), they most decidedly did not screw around. No, they went straight for an adaptation of a foundational piece of literature, the one that did as much as anything to establish the language and the national identity. Without hesitation, they turned to Dante.
It’s an ambitious undertaking. “The Inferno,” the first part of Dante’s epic Divine Comedy, is a true horror story, a warning about the torture that awaits sinners in the afterlife. Part of what made Dante’s work so noteworthy was his willingness to name names. Various popes, Holy Roman Emperors, and other notable figures are depicted, along with their crimes and punishments. And his God is a harsh one: Julius Caesar’s assassins undergo perpetual torment, but Caesar himself was relegated to Limbo, an inferior paradise for those who made the terrible mistake of existing on Earth before Christ. It took a very pure life to stay out of Dante’s Hell, and he was only too happy to reveal the consequences of failure.
If all it took to get on our list was the “Indelible Image” category, L’Inferno would make the cut in a cakewalk. The limited practical and special effects of early cinema yield terrific results, conveying Hell as a real and horrible place in spectacular fashion. The harsh landscapes are difficult to navigate, and usually strewn with writhing bodies in some unholy mix of Hieronymous Bosch paintings and Spencer Tunick photographs. Multiple exposures conjure up rivers in the sky composed of thousands of the damned. Forced perspective brings the travelers into the realm of the mighty and rageful Pluto, and blackout techniques permit one doomed soul to carry his own head. The film’s climactic tableau combines these methods and more to present a three-mouthed Lucifer devouring some of history’s most notorious traitors; it resembles nothing so much as Goya’s grotesque classic “Saturn”. This appears simplistic to modern eyes but remains quite powerful in its effect. It’s as though the filmmakers carefully studied the magical techniques of Georges Méliès for the sole purpose of applying them to horror.
But alas, imagery alone is not enough to make a weird movie. The film of “The Inferno” suffers from the format that inspired it: it’s a travelogue. A travelogue through Hell, but a winding, episodic tour nonetheless. Dante visits a new circle of Hell, Virgil explains what the condemned did on Earth and what fate awaits them now, and we see that fate enacted. There’s not much more to it, so that this work of tremendous faith and contrition is reduced to a haunted house. Hell? It’s pretty bad, say the filmmakers. Rinse and repeat.
L’Inferno is a landmark film, and it creates dramatic and powerful screen pictures that most modern CGI-powered spectacles would be hard-pressed to match. Those pictures are often ugly and monstrous, and the rhythms are repetitive, which is probably why it hasn’t endured like more fantastical or pastoral works of the period. But it certainly deserves to be remembered. To abandon it to history would be a sin.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Anyone with an interest in the history of cinema should make an effort to seek this film out. Rightly famous, it is quite bizarre, unique and — in a way — haunting.” – Richard Cross, 20/20 Movie Reviews
(This movie was nominated for review by “Pete.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)