Tag Archives: Thriller

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST (1967)

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DIRECTED BY: Theodore J. Flicker

FEATURING: James Coburn, Joan Delaney, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden

PLOT: Dr. Sidney Shaefer is chosen to provide his psychoanalytical services to the president of the United States, making him target number one for sinister agents both foreign and domestic.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHAThe President’s Analyst begins as a cute exploration of the 60s craze for psychotherapy; but at an accelerating speed, cute spirals into silly, then into zany, then to madcap, before climaxing in a jaw-dropping finale plucked straight from a giggling paranoiac’s subconscious.

COMMENTS: Psychological analysis is a slow process: trust is built, feelings are explored, and emotions’ roots are teased out over time. The President’s Analyst, on the other hand, is a speedy journey through a pinball plotline, a zany zipping from point A, to B, to C—through the entire alphabet, perhaps, as director Theodore J. Flicker maneuvers an unflappable James Coburn from humble sitcom beginnings all the way through an explosive climax and a joyfully jaded denouement.

To speed along the plot necessities, Flicker amply uses cinema’s age-old time quickener: the montage. He establishes Dr. Sidney Shaefer’s profession before the opening credits wrap up, then intercuts that montage with another laying out the “thriller” angle: shady guy passes off envelope, envelope receiver winds through city streets, then is murdered by Don Masters, sneakily in broad daylight. Don is a CEA agent (not at all to be confused with a CIA agent) in a rush: “I gotta hurry, or I’ll be late for my analyst.” Scenes move along with purpose, often with a 1960s “ahhh-AHHHH-ahhh” woman’s chanting musical cue in moments of peril (and there are many moments of peril), with plenty of smoooooth lounge-style synth work.

Events escalate badly for Dr. Shaefer. Against the wishes of the FBR chief (not at all to be confused with the FBI chief, particularly as this man’s organization is staffed entirely by somber men who stand below five-foot-tall), Shaefer has been groomed and selected to serve the president. This leads our hero to acquire too much knowledge, and hostile forces stack up quickly to either kill or kidnap him: the Russians (through the machinations of friendly super-spy Kropotkin, friend of Don Masters), the Chinese, the Libyans, the Cubans, the British—and even, we find, the Canadian Secret Service. The FBR (who, along with the CEA, were not consulted for this film) are after Shaefer as well, sending two of their top short men.

The second half of The President’s Analyst is “Spy v. Spy” writ large, but with character-building moments breaking into the many montages. The two FBR agents are distinct, established in a delightful little scene in a New Jersey suburb, one admonishing the boy of the house about racist language. Don’s and Kropotkin’s friendship is touching, as two long-career spies working from opposite sides of the Cold War divide. And James Coburn is a combination of James Bond and Dr. Hartley from the “Bob Newhart Show,” thinking on his feet (at one point he stumbles onto a tour bus and ends up dressed as a hippie-band gong maestro), both for survival and analysis.

Looming in the background is a most unlikely nemesis: bigger than any petty foreign agency, bigger than the KGB, bigger, even, it seems, than the US government. This reveal, with its concurrent implications of technological grandeur and the power to enslave humanity, forced my long dropped jaw to remain open until the finish.  Casino Royale, eat your heart out; “The Prisoner,” eat your heart out—The President’s Analyst is a prescient, madcap, disturbing, hilarious, thrilling adventure which fuses Cold War paranoia with ’60s-silly cinematic sensibilities.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a psychedelic mega-satire with sado-burlesque overtones… a full-scale, mind-bending comic nightmare.”–Giles M. Fowler, Kansas City Star (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Mel Arkey, who called it “an all time fave of mine and most definitively weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SUSPECT ZERO (2004)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss

PLOT: A mysterious vigilante cursed with supernatural visions singles out disgraced FBI agent Tom Mackelway as the man to apprehend a prolific serial killer.

Still from "Suspect Zero" (2004)

COMMENTS: There’s a certain level of hubris, even for a cinematic interpretation of the FBI, in naming a secret program “Project Icarus.” Training agents in the gift of second sight to allow them to pursue elusive murderers, “Project Icarus” suggests unavoidable doom for the participants. All those involved end up dead or insane, except for one—who’s still kind of nuts. Ben Kingsley provides a stellar performance as Ben O’Ryan, the kind-of-nuts agent cursed with the sight; Aaron Eckhart provides a middling performance as Tom Mackelway, a migraine-prone lawman; and Carrie-Anne Moss is reduced to just kicking around as, perhaps, the audience’s conduit into the action. With the man behind Begotten and Shadow of the Vampire orchestrating what should be a hazy, unsettling outing in the world of serial killers, one has to wonder went gone wrong, and if hubris had anything to do with that.

Merhige has somehow managed to direct a ho-hum procedural here, which is a real pity. The stakes seem to be high—there are hundreds of dead and missing people, most of them children, and the killer(s) evade justice—but Eckhart’s FBI man just seems kind of addled and pissed off (explained at least in part by the fact that the poor guy suffers from constant headaches). There’s a bit of ambiguity, I suppose, vis-à-vis O’Ryan: no one that calm and smiling could possibly be an unalloyed goodie, right? Eh, maybe. Or not. Whenever Kingsley wasn’t on screen, it was a bit difficult to care.

Looking closely, one can see the missed opportunities here. Merhige unfortunately keeps his keen sense of visual on the stylistic periphery. The dark art of “Remote Viewing,” the technical term for the paranormal power of perception, is a treat to view, with visions of the crimes, and those involved, coming through the viewer’s pupil in the form of a sepia-’90s camcorder hybrid. There are also singularly creepy charcoal renderings, and the occasional shot of what I’ll call as the Wandering Merhige Eye (those familiar with Begotten may guess it’s an extreme close-up of a troubled, scanning eyeball).

My best guess is that main(ish)-stream filmmaking is beyond the reach of certain auteurs who are steeped in their own vision. (John Paisz is another of these, albeit in a manner quite different from Merhige.) Begotten is one of the most original films of the second half of the 20th century. It is something extreme, and different from just about any feature film. Shadow of the Vampire similarly explores mythical (and ocular) themes through a comedy-horror lens. Unfortunately, Suspect Zero is little more than wasted potential across the board. That’s not to say it isn’t “good enough,” but it is merely good enough—when it could have been a tantalizing vision of humanity’s darkest corners.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…perhaps there is another, more bizarre and involved explanation, and the killer is either hidden in plain view among the major characters or is never seen at all until the climax. I am not spoiling any secrets, but simply applying logic to plot that offers zero sum as well as zero suspects…. Merhige is a gifted director with a good visual sense and a way of creating tension where it should not exist. But Suspect Zero is too devised and elaborate to really engage us.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

Suspect Zero (4KUHD) [4K UHD]
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APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: IDENTIKIT (1974)

AKA The Driver’s Seat

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DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi

FEATURING: Elizabeth Taylor, Gino Giuseppe, , Maxence Mailfort

PLOT: Having been fired from her job after a nervous breakdown, Lise travels to Italy to find the man of her destiny.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The fractured narrative, which freely jumps back, forth, and freeze-frames, disorients the viewer ceaselessly as we try to figure out just what Lise is up to as she has random and unlikely encounters in a version of Rome which appears to have been cast into the Uncanny Valley by a miffed deity.

COMMENTS: Elizabeth Taylor brings the goods full to the fore as Lise, pivoting between blasé tourist, unhinged pixie woman, and ferocious lioness—all while sporting a rainbow-seared traveling dress. This dress, which is quite the eye-catching sight among many eye-catching sights, somehow manages to get the jump on us. Identikit opens from the neck up, so to speak, as the camera follows Elizabeth Taylor’s famous face gazing around an undefined space filled with aluminum-foil-topped mannequins. Then, a medium shot, and we see the dress, a dress I suspect is one of the more famous in motion picture history. Lise loves it! The German saleswoman tells her it also has been rendered stain resistant. Lise hates it! A fit ensues, a senior clerk is summoned, Lise is calmed with an untreated dress, and so an ambiguous adventure begins.

Identikit‘s somewhat odd beginning shifts into full-blown ambiguity during a scene at the  Hamburg airport. Shortly after advising an elderly woman which dime-novel might be “more exciting, more sadomasochistic,” Lise retrieves her boarding pass. The frame freezes on Lise’s face (and wild ‘do, which veers between being free-spirited and crazy), and a voiceover breathlessly communicates an Interpol investigation. Throughout, the director doesn’t shy away from further still shots, as well as copious timeline-ambiguating interviews between those who interact with Lise—airplane passengers, porters, a nobleman played by Andy Warhol, because it’s 1974 and why not?—and even the Italian police, who are also neck-deep in a sub-sub-plot investigation into terrorists, bombings, and a Middle Eastern royal in hiding.

The story isn’t illogical in its progression, but doesn’t make clear its arc until the final scene involving a young, mild-mannered Nova Scotian who wears a size nine shoe. Countless such details are dropped into the dialogue as Lise spends a hectic day in Rome before her assignation at a park pavilion. There, a delightfully chaotic mountain of park chairs graces the otherwise orderly park-scape, mirroring Lise’s coif. And even when the story becomes clear (enough), the purpose remains something of a cipher—mirroring Lise herself.

Elizabeth Taylor’s dedication to this character is apparent: from her wild hair, to her dramatic makeup, and down the length of the psychedelic dress. As an exercise in dramatic storytelling, Identikit keeps the viewer on their toes, with promise of a crime (or crimes) to be unearthed. But it is more a character study, dissecting a single frenetic day in the life of a woman who has obviously been much put-upon, and who has decided to let go of everything in order to determine existence on her own terms.

Indentikit is available as part of the “House of Psychotic Women” box set (reviewed here), or can be rented on-demand separately.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…super-weird narrative… the star-power of Elizabeth Taylor drives this strange, yet fascinating project with remarkable verve.”–Eddie Harrison, film-authority (2023 Blu-ray)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: HARLEQUIN (1980)

AKA Deadly Forces, The Minister’s Magician

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Wincer

FEATURING: , , Carmen Duncan, Broderick Crawford

PLOT: Senator Rast’s cancer-stricken son is healed by a stranger with supernatural abilities, but the magician’s presence in the politician’s household leads to friction with behind-the-scenes malefactors.

COMMENTS: The modern Western world is no place for honest magic, but is instead a morally murky landscape riddled with assassinations, machinations, trysts, twists—and deadly medicine. This is the world of Nick and Sandra Rast; the former a prominent politician, the latter a wealthy daughter of an ambassador. Despite their luck and luxury, they are cursed with a leukemia-stricken son, one who is soon to leave this world despite his father’s power, his mother’s care, and endless blasts of radiation. Th birthday party for the wheelchair bound boy, hairless from chemotherapy, is glum. But a the party clown brings laughter, and summons thunder with the prick of an invisible needle.

The boy’s survival is only in question for the film’s first ten minutes or so, as director Simon Wincer conjures a miracle (the first of many) in the form of Gregory Wolfe, faith-healer, probable sorcerer, and donner of flamboyant costumes. Harlequin is a flashy story which unfolds deliberately, as all manner of tricks springing forth from Gregory (who may well be a charlatan) are met with skepticism and underhanded calibrations. The countervailing forces—or, to un-mince words, forces of evil—work under the close direction of “Doc” Wheelan (a grubbily dangerous Broderick Crawford), who have conspired for some years to launch, maintain, and advance Nick’s career. There are a none-too-subtle undertones of ancient versus modern and belief versus technology, but Wincer raises enough doubts about Wheelan to make the viewer suspect that he, too, may be more than his collection of cryptic remarks, pitch-black sedans, and well-armed thugs. Even beyond all the mischievous shenanigans from Gregory, I became deadly curious what angle “Doc” was coming from.

Harlequin magically dodges the fate of being judged merely by what it could have been. (It could have been a feature starring and , who were originally attached to the project.) But Simon Wincer’s mystical oddity is the kind of political thriller I have not seen before: a (then) contemporary suspense ride which takes the prospect of true magic seriously and in stride. Robert Powell’s performance falls somewhere between ‘s immortally cynical Withnail and ‘s immortally flamboyant Frank-n-Furter—generally for the best, but not always. And the film shows its age at times: the hairstyles (often) and the score (occasionally) scream vintage “soap opera.” But is never sloppy. By the finish I found myself talking to Nicholas Rask on-screen as he pondered a fateful decision. And I feel no shame having become wrapped up in this intermittently hokey ride. By the time I realized who this film was actually about, I also realized the dark and whimsical interlayering of good and evil had enchanted me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A bizarre mix of rambling theology and mysticism mixed up with modern day political nastiness, Harlequin is an interesting and multi-layered film that will probably alienate as many as it will captivate. It’s a genuinely odd film.” — Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Parker Weston. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FUZZY HEAD (2023)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, , Jonathan Tolliver

PLOT: Pursued by the police, Marla is dogged by memories as she attempts to get a grip on what happened after a fateful evening at her mother’s home.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Presented as a thriller, McColm’s intensely personal film explores guilt and inter-generational trauma in a style reminiscent of Lynch, Tarantino, Fincher, and even . Thus equipped with its own storytelling tool-kit, Fuzzy Head shifts gears faster than you can say “unreliable narrator.”

COMMENTS: From what Marla can piece together, her mother is dead. The fact that she has not slept in almost a week doesn’t help her understanding of the situation. It also doesn’t help that she’s faced years of emotional abuse from mom, interrupted by moments of emotional clarity and ineffable love. Marla’s own tragedy consists of her being forced to cope with oblique hints from her mother, “a woman who was never heard in her pain.” McColm translates the disorientation of “fuzzy head”—a semi-clinical condition whose symptoms include problems with focus, memory, and logic, often stemming from a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, and guilt—onto the screen with intensity at times, softness at others, absurdity, despair, sympathy, and humor. All the while, they thread a narrative whose focus is woven from muddled tatters into a crystalline whole.

Blank asks Marla, “What happened to your mother?” Marla is screaming, flailing; Blank is her best—and only—friend. Marla wants to kill her mother. Perhaps Marla did. Police have questions, but not as the string of faceless therapists Marla endures as she attempts to discover what happened that one night, and what has happened her entire life. Her brain snaps back to a memory of triumph: firing a six-shooter into the air when she successfully rides her bicycle without training wheels. Her mother stands by proudly. Her brain snaps back to a memory of debasement: being forced to walk across the shards of a kitchen glass she dropped. Her mother stands by in disgust. Marla’s memories crash upon her as she navigates her life, waking up in a cheap motel serviced by a strangely insistent housekeeper. Memories mingle with present-day experience, and she doesn’t always know what’s real, particularly when interacting with Blank.

For those out there baying for symbolism, Fuzzy Head comes up aces. On her journey toward redemption, Marla’s dreams give her access the worst parts of her self and her experience. A sign to hang on her door for the maid. A key dangling from Blank’s rear-view mirror. The six shooter she buys back from a sympathetic local (“I think I killed my mother with that gun”, she admits; “Yeah, we all feel that way sometimes,” the seller replies). Lynchian touches include a theremin solo in an empty nightclub. Tarantino time-loops and snap-cuts keep up the pace. Fincheristic perception-humor takes the edge off when events become too stinging. And the cast of recurring, unreal-maybe-real personae bring to mind the continuous efforts of the guardian angels secreted in Jacob’s Ladder.

Fuzzy Head is a stylish and stylized film. Pondering the influences, Wendy McColm might be accused by some as being derivative. Not by me. As with just about any and all filmmakers, the methods they use are lifted (and altered) from those who came before. Indeed, the last “new” movie I remember seeing came out in 1991. The directors I’ve mentioned have developed a language of cinema for those of us who are frightened, disoriented, confused, and amused, and Wendy McColm’s second feature film shows an already mature storyteller finessing to convey “fuzzy head”: desperate sadness, acute loneliness, and traces of confused amusement. In so doing, McColm tells a decidedly personal story in such a way that spectators like ourselves can look on with satisfaction.

No word on Fuzzy Head‘s post-festival distribution plans at the moment; we’ll let you know when we know more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a hauntingly beautiful and surreal exploration of childhood trauma… a strangely affecting and expressive feature with a heavy emotional core.” -Brian Fanelli, Horror Buzz (contemporaneous)