Tag Archives: Witchcraft

CAPSULE: SUSPIRIA (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Luca Guadagnino

FEATURING: Dakota Johnson, ,

PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.

Still from Suspiria (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.

COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from ‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of ?”)

So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and they script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.

If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended  to connect, but puzzling it out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.

I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.

The  cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a spectacularly strange affair, thrumming with wild blood and weird powers. It’s easily the classiest horror movie made in years, maybe ever…”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

“Casual viewers are going to find it weird, poorly acted, nonsensical, sexist, weird, not scary, confusing and did I mention weird?”–Amazon review of The Love Witch

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford

PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
  • For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed—but she’ll cast one anyway, just to make sure.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink tea room; jimsonweed rainbow sex; tampon/urine brew

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”


Brief scene from The Love Witch

COMMENTS: The Love Witch is thematically dense and symbolically Continue reading 306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

The Love Witch has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Comments on this post are closed. Please post any comments on the official Certified Weird entry.

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Anna Biller

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel

PLOT: A California witch who casts magic spells to seek out her true love finds that her lovers keep dying.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively unique—a blend of romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectic, and Technicolor melodramas—that perhaps it can only rightfully described as “weird.”

COMMENTS: One main stylistic feature of The Love Witch is the campy acting—Samantha Robinson’s Elaine speaks as if she’s always lost in an interior world of hearts and unicorns, making her sound insincere even when she’s at her most heartfelt. Other actors take an overly broad, TV-melodrama approach. This technique helps sustain the film’s sense of otherworldliness, but the other, and far more impressive, stylistic feature is the unreal, anachronistic, and impressively detailed mise-en-scene. A girly-girl café where the clientele all dress in pink and white with flowery hats—looking more like bridesmaids than ladies out for a spot of tea—while ethereal blondes play harps and sing medieval love hymns. The local burlesque house, in a lustful red-on-red color scheme, where dancers with feather boas never take it all off but ensorcell the drooling males nonetheless. The Renaissance Faire run by witches, where Elaine and her date “accidentally” end up wed in a mock pagan ceremony. The minutiae of Elaine’s witchcraft rituals, which at one point involves her honoring a corpse with her urine and a used tampon. Clever details and decorative ideas abound in nearly every scene. Reversing the seduction stereotype, Elaine uses a comically oversized brandy snifter to decrease her conquests’ inhibitions. Trish finds Elaine’s witchcraft altar full of bizarre potions and magickal totems, then walks into her adjoining bedroom to discover, oriented in exact mirror image position, a vanity set out with wig, perfume, and makeup.

The smart script is not simplistic in its satire; it prides itself on creating and holding contradictory views. Elaine and her friends toss out ideas about femininity that are sometimes laughably old-fashioned, but are sometimes still with us today, and trusts us to sort out which are which. Witchcraft is shown as harmless New Agey neo-paganism, no more or less ritually ridiculous than Christianity, but it’s also a source of implied abuse and exploitation, and a real threat to the community. And of course, the biggest contradiction of all is Elaine, a mixture of idealism and ruthless cunning, who expresses naïve ideas with a simple conviction that no one can effectively refute, simultaneously a victim and a serial victimizer.

Because the stylistic world Anna Biller creates in The Love Witch is cinematically familiar—with its widescreen compositions, brazen color schemes, cigarette smoking femme fatales and square-jawed cops—many are tempted to go hunting for movie references and homages. Indeed, I was reminded of The Birds (in Elaine’s rear-projection convertible ride up the California coast),  (the nude witchcraft rituals), The Trip (the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens when Elaine seduces the hippie professor) and TV’s “Dragnet” (in the sappy hard-boiled dialogue of the police squad room); others cite , Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as inspirations. But none of the scenes Biller stages are outright allusions or in-jokes. She absorbs the period style—particularly its vivacious use of the full chromatic scale—-without simply referencing a checklist of favorite films; you’ll search in vain for nods to her specific influences. The Love Witch is a Sixties-era Technicolor B-movie that could have been, but in an alternate universe at a slight tangent to our own. The biggest compliment I can give Biller is to say that she does something for 1960s Technicolor spectacles similar to what did for silents and early talkies: she uses antiquated techniques to create a timeless, abstract setting that reflects her own personality. It’s gratifying to see her receive critical praise for this monumentally inventive and deceptively intelligent feminist statement dressed in Satanic sexploitation robes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The results are wildly over-the-top, in a ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’-meets-‘Dark Shadows’ kind of way, but Biller’s commitment to her vision is weirdly endearing.”–Sean P. Means, The Salt Lake Tribune (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: CHARMS (1973)

AKA Grassland, Hex, The Shrieking

DIRECTED BY: Leo Garen

FEATURING: , , Gary Busey, Christina Raines (as Tina Herazo), Hilarie Thompson, Robert Walker Jr., Dan Haggerty, Doria Cook, Mike Combs

PLOT: A group of WWI veterans motorcycling through the plains of Nebraska encounter two sisters, daughters of a Native-American shaman. When the antics of the gang get a bit rowdy, one of the sisters hexes the group and the members die in strange ways.

Hex4

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: See the “Comments” for the argument… but if the ad campaigns below (click to enlarge) don’t convince you, then you’re obviously not into Weird Hippie Westerns.

grassland hex


COMMENTS: Despite the plot description, Charms is not quite the undiscovered horror gem that some might hope for.  In fact, it pretty much defies any sort of expectation that one would take from its logline—which, considering the history of this film, is quite fitting. This movie has gone through several title changes. Originally called Grassland (it had a short debut under that title), it was retitled Hex and got a second brief release in the U.S. and in Europe under that new name. Then it was pulled from release and shelved by its studio, 20th Century Fox, and went relatively unseen until the early 90s, when it was released on VHS and LaserDisc under the title The Shrieking. It turns up on DVD in 2006 under its current moniker.

The screenplay was originally written in the 1960s by Doran William Cannon (Skidoo, Brewster McCloud), who sold it to Leo Garen, an off-Broadway theater director who moved into film and television. (Garen was an associate producer of Norman Mailer’s 1970 experiment Maidstone, and later co-wrote 1986’s Band of the Hand). Garen went through several drafts with screenwriters Vernon Zimmerman (Fade to Black, Unholy Rollers) and Steve Katz (“The A-Team”); Garen and Katz were eventually credited with the screenplay while Cannon and Zimmerman got story credit.

That’s quite a mish-mash, and the film certainly shows signs of too many cooks in the kitchen… but ultimately, its largest flaw (and also its charm, get it?) is that it’s a product of its time, when artistic amalgamations were encouraged to bring in the Youth Audience (who made Easy Rider and its ilk box-office successes). And while Charms is not a great film, it can certainly be argued that it is a weird one.

Still from CharmsAt first the film appears to be a period Western when the two sisters Oriole (Herazo) and Acacia (Thompson) are seen loading up a wagon to pick up supplies from the nearest town. When they see a group of motorcyclists crossing the prairie, it’s a dissociation from expectations that this will be a typical Western, which is topped by another dissociation that takes place at the climax of the film. The tone varies so much from comedy (the gang’s adventure in town, involving racing a local with a very early precursor to the ‘hot rod’) to terror (the hexing) that it can’t really be said to be a horror film. It’s a rather laid back (seriously—there’s not a lot of action here, and an extended sequence where one of the sisters introduces the bikers to “loco weed”) story of two groups of characters: a group of WW1 “young veterans” tooling around looking for kicks (the Easy Rider influence) and of two sisters with mystic powers, one light and the other dark.

Ultimately this melding of European artistic sensibility with a straightforward commercial premise doesn’t quite work as well as one would hope, as borne out by Fox not really knowing what the hell they paid for and shelving the film after two brief releases didn’t work out. But there are some tasty elements present, including the cast… anything featuring Carradine, Glenn and Busey as bikers at the start of their careers is definitely worth a look. The cinematography by Charles Rosher (3 Women) is also noteworthy and provides some beautifully haunting moments.

The budget release DVD can probably still be found on auction sites like eBay,  and the film can be viewed via Amazon Instant Video.

CAPSULE: BLOOD SABBATH (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Brianne Murphy

FEATURING: Anthony Geary, , Sam Gilman, Susan Damante

PLOT:  A Vietnam veteran falls in love with a water nymph, but she can’t love a man who has a soul; the local topless witches’ coven offers to get rid of his for him.

Still from Blood Sabbath (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because, let’s face it, the movie’s terrible.

COMMENTS: Sometimes, exploitation movies are so rushed and cut so many corners that they become incoherent and unintentionally strange.  Cases where movies aimed at a six-pack swilling Friday night crowd dare to be intentionally bizarre are far less common.  Blood Sabbath is an ultra-rare example of a jiggle-fest that manages to be weird in both ways.  The story of a world-weary vet who walks to Mexico, falls in love with a water spirit, and sells his soul for love could have made for an odd enough little modern fairy tale, played straight.  But, instead, Blood Sabbath begins with a scene of a gang of longhaired peaceniks luring our hitchhiking hero to their flower power van so they can spray him with beer and taunt him with the dangling melons of a topless hippie chick as they zoom off into the sunset.  Then, a gang of picnicking naked women (including mammacious nudie fave Uschi Digart) try to pants the harried soldier and chase him until he rolls down a ravine and gently knocks himself unconscious.  The casually introduced fantasy elements—water sprites, the witches coven that demands an annual blood sacrifice from the local peasants—and the solemn tone make this an unusual enough drive-in horror movie, but the way the director seizes any opportunity to put a naked woman on screen, regardless of logic, is its weirdest, and its defining, feature.  In the course of the movie we discover that topless go-go dancing is a much bigger part of Satanism than anyone realized, and being sacrificed at a black mass turns out to be surprisingly similar to getting a lap dance.  The flick is amazing, and amusing, in its shamelessness.  The thespianship is abysmal all the way around; the quiet, tormented village priest who occasionally explodes into loud, dramatic bouts of anguished “acting!” is the worst offender.  Campy though her performance may be, future Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Dyanne Thorne (playing a witch-queen named “Alotta”), emerges as the best actor in the troupe (though the guy who plays the hermit who looks like Lloyd Bridges caught in the early stages of werewolf transformation isn’t half bad).  Of course, it would be hard for anyone to shine when reciting lines like “take my soul, damn you!” and “It’s David.  He came into the cave with blood all over him.  Sacrificial blood!”  Ensorcellment is indicated by the usual array of low-budget acid trip clichés: double images, solarization, colored filters, and zoom-lens abuse.  A random shot of David cradling a dying solider suggests it’s all an allegory for America’s experience in Vietnam, or something.  Though it’s pretty terrible, it’s seldom boring, and you already knew whether you were in this film’s target audience or not when you reached the lines “taunt him with the dangling melons of a topless hippie chick…”  With its eerie fairy tale + naked lady formula, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that director Murphy had been inspired by the previous year’s (much better) Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay.

Some jokes are just too easy.  I was going to quip “this movie should be called Boob Sabbath,” but when I went looking for a critical quote, I found that someone (probably many people) beat me to it.  Great minds think alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this bizarre cross between seventies witch movies, NIGHT TIDE, LOVE STORY and ORGY OF THE DEAD, with romantic meadow-romping, tepid gore effects, crass exploitation… and bad acting is, in a word, awful.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: INFERNO (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Alida Valli, Daria Nicolodi

PLOT:  The second in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, Inferno follows his masterpiece Suspiria. The earlier film is not referred to explicitly, and it’s not necessary to have seen Suspiria to enjoy Inferno—though it might get you in the mood.

Still from Inferno (1980)

Rose, a poet living in New York, buys an old book about the Three Mothers from a neighboring antiques dealer and after reading it begins to suspect that the basement in her apartment block is home to Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, one of a trio of sisters who are the age old matrons of witchcraft.

After investigating a strange, flooded ballroom below the building, Rose and a neighbor are murdered by an anonymous, black gloved killer.

Rose’s brother Mark is a music student in Rome.  He receives a letter from his sister mentioning the Mothers and flies to New York to investigate.  The apartments she lives in are home to a small group of strange people, given to uttering premier league non-sequiturs, asking weird questions, and performing bizarre actions.

Mark explores the building, discovering the weird architectural features designed by the Mothers’ architect, Varelli, the one whose book kick-started the whole affair.  After a long ramble through tortuous crawlspace, Mark uncovers the lair of Mater Tenebrarum.  She reveals herself to be Death; the building burns to the ground; a dazed looking Mark wanders out unscathed; the end credits roll; you wonder what you’ve just witnessed.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Its dream logic story line and stylized cinematography mark it out as weird, but Inferno really pales next to Suspiria. It features some wonderful scenes and startling images, but they’re too widely spaced out, and the film is marred by some wooden acting and inadvertently hilarious dialogue.

COMMENTS:   Inferno is a very enjoyable film, not always for the intended reasons.  The dialogue is so disjointed and at times downright bizarre as to be chucklesome. It also features the inconsistent acting and wooden delivery common to any number of giallos (understandable given the speed of some productions and the vagaries of international dubbing); after watching a number of giallos, you may come to view them as a feature rather than a flaw.

Inferno features a number of Argento trademarks: an oneiric story flow, driving soundtrack Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: INFERNO (1980)

72. ANTICHRIST (2009)

“If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made.”–John Waters, “Artforum Magazine”

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: William Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

PLOT: He and She (the characters are nameless) are making love when their child tumbles to his death out of a window. She falls into inconsolable grief, and He, a therapist, unwisely decides to take her under his personal care. When He discovers the root of She’s anxiety and irrational fears centers around a woodland retreat they call Eden, He forces her to go there to face her fears; but when they arrive, nature itself seems determined to drive them both mad.

Still from Antichrist (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Von Trier says that he was suffering from extreme depression when he made Antichrist and that working on the script and the film was a form of self-therapy. Von Trier was still depressed at the time of screening and sometimes had to excuse himself from the set.
  • In the title card and much of the promotional art, the “t” in “antichrist” is suggested by a figure combining the Christian cross and the symbol for “woman.”
  • The therapy He employs in the film is called “exposure therapy” (where an anxiety-ridden patient is gradually exposed to the source of their irrational fear); von Trier had undergone this treatment for his own anxiety problems, and thought little of the practice.
  • The idea for the fox came from a shamanic journey taken by von Trier.
  • Besides this film, British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle also shot Slumdog Millionaire, for which he received the 2009 Academy Award, in the same year. Of the two, Antichrist, with its extreme slow-motion photography, was the more difficult and magnificently shot film.
  • Von Trier dedicated Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, which caused jeers at Cannes and gave critical wags the opportunity to take deserved, if obvious, potshots (Jason Anderson’s “we now know what it would’ve been like if Tarkovsky had lived to make a torture-porn movie” was a typical dig).
  • The film’s Cannes reception was tumultuous, with audience members reportedly fainting, and hostility between the press and von Trier (who proclaimed himself “the world’s greatest director.”) Charlotte Gainsbourg won “Best Actress” for her brave and revealing performance. The film received a special “anti-humanitarian” prize from the ecumenical jury (a Cannes sub-jury with a Christian focus), who called Antichrist “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without doubt, the searing image is of the encounter between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s intimate prosthetic and a pair of rusty scissors. However indelibly gruesome this scene may be, however, it comes out of von Trier’s shock toolbox rather than from his weird shed. For an image with a power to make us do more than squirm, we turn to the scene where He and She are copulating in the woods, with her head resting on a bed of roots from a massive oak tree. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal a number of disembodied human hands sticking out at various places from between the oak limbs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though the graphic torture-porn (and plain old-fashioned porn) elements have stolen the headlines and alienated viewers, at bottom this is von Trier’s spookiest and most mysterious film, a trip deep into the heart of darkness, and one the viewer may have as difficult a time returning home from intact as the characters do. The irrational horror of von Trier’s vision is only magnified by the sense that you aren’t so much watching a story of madness as watching a director going insane in real time, before your very eyes: he seems to lose control of his story as it progresses, turning the climax over to his internal demons for script-doctoring, before reasserting some measure of control of his material in a surreal epilogue.


Trailer for Antichrist (WARNING: contains non-explicit sexual content)

COMMENTS: Lars von Trier deserves to be roundly criticized for burdening Antichrist with four Continue reading 72. ANTICHRIST (2009)