Tag Archives: Thriller

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)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

CAPSULE: MY NIGHTS WITH SUSAN, SANDRA, OLGA, & JULIE (1975)

Mijn Nachten met Susan, Olga, Albert, Julie, Piet & Sandra

DIRECTED BY: Pim de la Parra

FEATURING: Willeke van Ammelrooy, Hans van der Gragt, Franulka Heyermans, Marja de Heer, Nelly Frijda, Marieke van Leeuwen, Serge-Henri Valcke

PLOT: Anton is sent by Barbara to pick up her friend Susan, who has exiled herself in the countryside; the errand goes awry when two of Susan’s housemates murder an American passing through their town.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it is a perk, having professional opportunities to watch classic lite-porn isn’t the main reason I took up writing for this site. Pim de la Parra and producer Wim Verstappen once again limbo below the bar of “weird” to deliver a quirky, flesh-filled … thriller?

COMMENTS: It’s got a title Peter Greenaway would love (particularly the more thorough Dutch version), establishing shots ripped off from Alfred Hitchcock, and more carefree nudity than you could shake a stick at. (Being very careful, under the circumstances, in so doing.) In fact, other than breezing along a tad too quickly, I have no real complaints about this movie. Even the director’s introduction video for the blu-ray was disarming and convivial, “Please don’t forget: it’s a small movie from a small country, and I am also a very small man, as you can see.”

Our story begins with Sandra (Marja de Heer) and Olga (Franulka Heyermans) hucking rocks at some swans, stopping their mindless fun to flag down a car driven by an American. He’s smoking a big-honkin’ cigar, he’s wearing garish sunglasses, he’s blasting some kind of proto-R&B in his drop-top’s cassette deck (this is 1975, remember). Topping it off, he’s drinking “Bourbon, USA” brand whiskey. He’s an American—and he’s doomed1. Sandra lures him into some car sex while Olga looks on jealously. Smash goes the bottle, down goes the Yankee, and the story begins anew, with hunky-hunk Anton (Hans van der Gragt) zipping up to a farmhouse on his motorcycle on a mission to extract erstwhile model Susan (Willeke van Ammelrooy) at the behest of an unseen “Barbara” who wants Susan back in the city. All the non-Barbara ladies live together (not forgetting, of course, Julie—who is either asleep or helpfully wearing a t-shirt with her name written on it). In fact, there are others lurking about the farmhouse not included in the English-language title. More plot than can fit in eighty-five minutes gets sliced down further to allow for some “romance”.

The whole thing was so strangely whimsical and fun, I regret having put off watching it for as long as I did. As the final release of de la Parra’s and Verstappen’s “Scorpio” production label, it’s also a nice capstone for what was probably the end of whimsical soft-core mainstream-ism. AIDS lurked around the corner, and the Cold War was reaching its awkward, saggy middle. Scorpio goes out with a bang, figuratively, but with My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie it also crams in some psychodrama (just a smidge), a latter-day witch, and rounds out its lilting excess with some nice fiery vengeance for the delight of an audience of corpses. This little movie fills a void I didn’t know existed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“For approximately an hour Parra does different things — which should not be spoiled – that essentially provide his film with a Hitchcockian identity but the humor keeps chipping away its edges, which makes all of the key relationships look a bit odd. However, it all begins to make perfect sense when you realize, like I did an hour later, that the real distraction that throws everything out of sync is actually the Hitchcockian material.”–Dr. Svet Atanasov, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Mark Polish, Dianna Agron, Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha

PLOT: Chandler, a medically enhanced superspy on a mission,  falls into a coma and his wife Tess tries to bail him out.

Still from Against the Clock (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is art-house wannabe fodder for the hypothetical and stereotyped millennial audience who eat a bowl of sugar-frosted molly every morning for breakfast. It is strange by the measure of misguided and incompetent work, but true “weird” should be an intentional choice.

COMMENTS: I’ve gotten in trouble on this site for reviews like Breakfast of Champions and The God Inside My Ear, so I’m going to clearly ask up front: take Uncle Pete’s word for it and have faith in me this time. Against the Clock is not, again, not a movie. It is a tragically aborted fetus that came close to showing vital signs, but went wrong. What went wrong was a special effects team, fresh off an online Adobe Premier Pro course, who masturbated furiously all over the film with strobe-light-paced jump-cut CGI scored to literally every noise from a stock sound effect CD, followed by a director who subsequently fed the film stock through a wood-chipper until it was confetti and glued it back together with flypaper strips. With these chaotic monkeys turned loose on the production, the attempted movie has no room left for story, characters, dialogue, or a cubic centimeter of breathable oxygen in which to make clear its artistic statement. Picture Max Headroom on cocaine, turned loose with a camera for 100 minutes in the seedy side of The Matrix.

If you thought Oliver Stone’s style in Natural Born Killers wasn’t hyper enough, if Run, Lola, Run stressed your attention span, or if you felt The Wall just did not indulge itself in enough psychedelic show-offs, then get ready to put on your boogie pants and dance. Not to compare Against the Clock to those greater efforts; those works use trippy imagery and sugar-rush effects as tasteful seasonings on a competent recipe. Against the Clock unscrews the cap and dumps in the whole bottle.

Nevertheless, if you take the movie at its own terms and approach it with the right frame of mind, it does have some kind of artistic vision. But once you’ve become used to an experience that’s like viewing a pinball machine from inside the ball while the bumpers and flippers whack it around—and taken enough Dramamine not to barf—the movie’s novelty wears off. Rather than amping me up, the ADHD editing has the opposite effect: it lulls me into a relaxing daze, like watching a fireplace. This movie would make a pretty screensaver. It even held my cat’s attention for a record ten minutes before he wisely curled up in an adjacent chair for nap time, an option I envied as I contemplated running a Monster energy drink through my Continue reading CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

LES VAMPIRES (1915)

Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).

A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.

A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both and . The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.

Still from Les Vampires (1915)When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it  easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).

Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.

Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.

It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.

Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.

338. FREAKS (1932)

Recommended

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”–prologue to Freaks

Freaks is one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio.”–David Skal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles

PLOT: At a circus, an evil performer intends to marry a sideshow midget to exploit him for his wealth. Eventually her plans extend to attempted murder. The midget’s fellow sideshow denizens have his back, exacting a primitive form of carnival justice.

BACKGROUND:

  • Freaks was based on Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs.”
  •  Director Tod Browning started out as a contortionist performing in the circus himself, an inspiration from which he drew for this movie.
  • Browning leveraged his clout from helming the previous year’s hit Dracula to get Freaks made. The controversial film nearly ended his career, however; he would direct only four more projects (working uncredited on two of them) before retiring in 1939.
  • MGM stars Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and Jean Harlow all turned down parts in the film due to the subject matter.
  • Freaks was often banned by state censors in its original form when it first came out. It was not allowed to be exhibited in the United Kingdom until the late 1963. It’s since been cut from a reported 90-minute running time, leaving us with the modern edit that runs just over an hour. The original full length may forever be lost. The cut version was a dud at the box office.
  • Although Freaks bombed on its original release and was pulled from theaters, it survived when (Maniac) bought the rights and took the film on tour (often using alternate titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes) in the late 1940s. Freaks was screened at Cannes in 1962 and received positive reappraisals, sparking its second life as a cult film.
  • “Entertainment Weekly” ranked Freaks third in their 2003 list of the Top 50  Cult Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sing it along with us, Internet: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The Wedding Feast (it gets its own title card) is an omnipresent meme for very good reasons. Fast forward to it if you must, because this is the true beginning of Freaks.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sensually connected twins; “Gooble-gobble!”; half-boy with Luger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Life is not always fair; sometimes you’re born with no legs. But sometimes your movie comes along at the precise pinpoint in history where it could get made. We will always have exactly one Freaks, because even substituting CGI for actually disabled people, nobody in a modern day Hollywood studio would have the balls to remake this.


The opening scenes of Freaks

COMMENTS: We all know examples of movies where their hype far Continue reading 338. FREAKS (1932)

CAPSULE: BLIND BEAST (1969)

Môjû; AKA Warehouse

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Yasuzô Masumura

FEATURING: Eiji Funakoshi, Mako Midori, Noriko Sengoku

PLOT: A blind sculptor kidnaps a model and imprisons her in his studio.

Still from Blind Beast (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blind Beast scores two points in its weird ledger: one for the set design (which is almost always described as esque), and another for its irrationally sadomasochistic third act. At its core, however, it’s an odd and engaging “pinku” (as Japanese softcore erotic films of the 1960s were dubbed) that’s reminiscent of 1965’s The Collector (although the scenario was adapted loosely from a story). The sight of the sightless sculptor’s bizarro studio would have gotten Blind Beast shortlisted had we reviewed it earlier, but given the limited available slots, we see Beast as close, but not quite worthy of being named one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Blind Beast quickly gets in gear after the abduction, which is handled in an absurdly economical ten minutes. The blind antihero selects his model victim by feeling up a sculpture of her, then steals into her apartment posing as a masseur. With the help of his trusty sighted assistant, who also happens to be his mother, he soon has beautiful young Aki imprisoned inside his remote warehouse studio, and this is where the “fun” begins. The blind sculptor’s studio utilizes a fetishized geometry, with high-relief assemblies of (female) body parts lining each of the eight walls, enclosing two giant, pliant sculptures of prone nude women (one on her stomach, one on her back). The blind, stumbling hunter and his victim chase each through this corporeal funhouse; he clutches a giant nipple as he bargains for her compliance. Later, they will make love—of their strange sort—while rolling about on the humungous feminine torsos. You probably have never seen that before.

The middle part of the film involves Aki’s machinations as she tries to escape, until a near-miss attempt permanently costs her her freedom and sets the bizarre third act into motion. These scenes work well as a standard woman-in-peril thriller. When she fails to sneak past the blind man fail thanks to the interference of his maternal assistant, Aki switches to a psychological ploy. She pretends to fall in love with her captor and plays son and mother against each other. Of course, were she to escape so easily, the movie would end prematurely; and the movie has a better—or worse—fate in store for Aki.

The blind man’s studio is as sick a materialization of a male libido as could be imagined. His love/hate relationship with his mother suggests an Oedipal complex. Still, the psychology here is only deep by the standards of pink movies. The sadomasochistic finale, a sudden and wrenching departure from first two-thirds of the movie, is foreshadowed from the film’s earliest moments, but the movie provides no real insights into the pathology. Given the absurd heights of agonizing ecstasy its characters travel to, how could it?  Their obsessions are perverse, and the tale depicts them poetically without trying to explain them. Blind Beast is surprisingly coy with its nudity, most of which is only seen in still photographs from the opening art exhibition. Mako Midori’s breasts are skillfully hidden throughout the film, and a corner of a nipple is a rare and tantalizing sight. This teasing modesty gives the erotic visuals even more impact, while serving the theme of frustrated voyeurism. Blind Beast would be nearly impossible to distribute today, through licit channels, due to its outdated attitude to consent. Seduction is important to the plot, but Aki willingly (and eagerly) surrenders only after an hour of brutal coercion. And yet, Blind Beast has a sort of innocence about it, largely due to the unreal nature of its psychodrama: a fantasy of total abandon to physical sensation far beyond any rational limits, played out in a subterranean lair of mountainous breasts, dismembered legs, and eyeballs leering from the walls. It’s a space we would never want to visit, but one we can’t look away from.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre and claustrophobic…  a masterpiece of mod 1960s art design… Completely freaky and utterly engrossing.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “MystMoonstruck” and seconded by “Dreamer.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)