Nobuhiko Obayashi and the Original Monster House

Now, that's encouraging to a fragile girl's image.

Now, that’s encouraging to a fragile girl’s image.

I forget where I heard first of House, but I definitely remember the first time I saw it. It was several years ago that I first saw it and, naturally, I was ecstatic to learn when it had finally come to be available in the US.

Lucy?

Lucy?

What the currently uninitiated do not yet comprehend is that House is unlike any other movie. Beneath the standard guise of your typical haunted house movie plot are the gears and cogs that frenetically pulse like some sort of mad offspring between psychedelic manga, Dario Argento, Ken Russell (in full-on Lisztomania mode), a bad LSD trip, a fifth-grader’s collage for art class, and a fun-house from hell.

Initial knee-jerk reaction to my first acquaintance with House: no one would ever make a movie this way! The second time I watched it: thank God someone made a movie this way!

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

House was the feature film debut of Nobuhiko Obayashi, a seasoned commercial director and experimental filmmaker. It seems as though House was designed to be the anti-movie. It is an assault on the senses. Its cinematic style is unprecedented and wild. Although the story is simple enough—Japanese schoolgirls get eaten by a haunted house—Obayashi found ways to film it in a completely unique way. Obayashi and his film crew employed a manic mixture of archaic and cutting edge special effects to heighten the fakeness and surreality of it all. Brightly colored cartoonish matte paintings glimmer in the background, while people dance in frames within frames in a nonstop barrage of collage effects and then random things will become cartoons themselves. The intent seems to have been to create something totally absurd, but at the same time realizing the immense untapped visual freedom of the film medium. House is the wild and visually experimental sort of film that Georges Melies would have been making had he lived long enough to experience the sixties.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

As I’ve said, the story is fairly rudimentary (but not unsatisfying on its own per se). Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), your stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl, is excited for summer vacation and looks forward to spending time with her friends and her father. A cruel twist of fate should wriggle its way into her life, however, when Daddy reveals his plans to remarry. Furious, Gorgeous decides to spend the summer with her maternal aunt in the country. She invites six giggly schoolmates along with her; Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Mac (Mieko Sato), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako). You begin to comprehend the saccharine cotton-candy campiness they were going for with character names alone. Everything is rainbows and butterflies. You half expect Hello Kitty to make a cameo appearance in the first act.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie's house we go.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie’s house we go.

Well on their way to visit old Auntie, the seven victims *ahem* protagonists titter giddily as they are introduced to Auntie’s sad backstory. Apparently her fiance was killed during the war and she’s been waiting for him ever since. The girls can never know the pains of losing a lover to the horrors of war and may never understand the grim specter of the atomic bomb mushrooming over Japan (as evidenced by their giggling and comparing the cloud to cotton candy), but maybe they will get a taste of supernatural evils. Oh, who am I kidding? They get jacked up by this freaking house!

Auntie dance.

Auntie dance.

Old and wheelchair bound, but strangely ethereal and entrancing, Auntie (Yoko Minamida) welcomes the girls into her home. The film almost seems to be playing a cruel trick on these happy-go-lucky schoolgirl caricatures by trapping them in this dark and sinister spider’s web. If the movie is a light-hearted Disney cartoon before the house, then once within the house it is Scooby-Doo on crack…and the ghosts are real. They certainly get some mileage out of the infectious theme song (which is almost as innocent and catchy as the theme song from Cannibal Holocaust). The music weaves through your head on repeat as a mysterious white cat dances across a keyboard, first forward and then back like the film itself is possessed. Mac (the fat one) is the first to go missing, but her decapitated head is eventually pulled out of a well like a chilled watermelon. It proceeds to float around for a scene and bite a girl on the buttocks. Later on everyone enjoys some watermelon with human eyes in it, and strangely enough Auntie no longer requires her wheelchair (“Mein Führer! I can walk!”).

Don't lose your head.

Don’t lose your head.

If the crazy style did not turn you off by the 30 minute mark then be prepared. The severed watermelon head nonsense is peanuts to what happens to some of the other girls. Mattresses attack, girls are trapped inside bleeding grandfather clocks, a ceiling lamp bites a girl in half and her severed legs fly through the air in classic kung fu pose to dropkick an evil blood-spewing painting, and more. Most famous of all perhaps, is the scene where the piano eats one of the girls, but I digress. It is not the way people die in this movie that is so weird, it is how it is all filmed. House is a film without rules. The colors are brighter, the deaths crazier, and grown men can transform into cartoon skeletons or piles of bananas without explanation. The piano scene is truly an incredible moment in the annals of horror. Everything seems to be juxtaposed onto something else. Chunks of the human body float and spin in place while other pieces claw and flail out of the piano and said piano flashes different colors and a multicolored lightning border circles every ludicrous frame…also a skeleton waves its arms like a disgruntled marionette in the background. It is noisy, raucous, wild, inventive, cheesy, silly, macabre, horrific, and funny. This actually describes most of the film. House mixes comedy and horror to such innovative effect that even at its most quiet it conjures mixed feelings of both dread and delight.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

More than a horror film and more than a comedy, House is an arty and extremely experimental addition to cinema psychedelica and a vibrant exploration of what the medium of film is ultimately capable of. I look at it like this; most movies I can imagine experiencing (albeit somewhat differently) in book form, but so much of House is so purely cinematic that it defies written description…begging the question, why write a review, bonehead? Well, I wanted to. So there.

Bwahahaha!

Bwahahaha!

Back to the plot or something. Gorgeous becomes possessed with the soul of her Auntie who is really already a spirit or whatever and more weird stuff happens. The girls are bumped off one by one in increasingly cartoonish and trippy ways. The teacher Fantasy is in love with tries to rescue them or whatever. There’s an evil cat doing stuff. The floors fall apart revealing pools of acidic blood stuff. Auntie gets younger. There’s occasional nudity (pretty sure no one’s over 18 so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that) and there’s tons of googly special effects. The stepmom from the beginning shows up later and more stuff happens. Basically the film is crazy. The traditional mechanisms that hold the plot together and the characters in their place are wholly secondary to the wild inventiveness of Obayashi’s camera.

I love lamp.

I love lamp.

Next Halloween I’m going to have to watch this with The House On Haunted Hill, Hold That Ghost, and Monster House. In many ways House is the ultimate haunted house movie, because just as ghosts do not have to abide by the laws of the real world, so House refuses to abide by the laws of the normal movie world. Ghosts don’t make sense to us and House doesn’t make sense if you’ve seen other movies. Anything goes. It is bedlam, mayhem, pandemonium and it knows it and revels in it and I loved it. For a psychedelic movie about a haunted house that eats a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is everything it needs to be and so much more. Thank you, Criterion, for releasing this insane Halloween treat.

Taz spin.

Taz spin.

Top 10 Reasons to Watch “House”

1. It’s definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

2. Although it is a horror movie it is never too proud to incorporate happy upbeat songs (performed by GODIEGO).

3. It’s like Pringles. Once it starts the fun don’t stop.

4. Even the obligatory expository non-horror bits are directed with pizazz and zany rhythm.

5. It’s pretty much an all girl cast and maybe you like that.

6. Many of the ideas for the story and wild things that occur therein were developed by Obayashi’s young daughter.

7. Although the story is formulaic and derivative of other haunted house movies, I would argue that never before has a film had this much fun with formula.

8. Not that there’s a huge list of films in this category, but it is grade A horror-fantasy-comedy.

9. It might even be weirder than Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris. Maybe.

10. It’s finally available on home video in the United States so you’re out of excuses.

Well...The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Well…The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 3, 2010.

The 60s Happened in the 40s

Dada? Surrealism? Avant-garde? Cinematic abstraction? Wanton pretentiosity?

Experimental film is at least as old as film itself. All of the first films were, by their very nature, “experimental.” People were experimenting with what the medium could do. Once a reasonable grasp on that was attained, experimental film came to mean something else. An experimental film came to mean a movie that used the medium of motion picture but as a vehicle to explore art and things other than straightforward narrative. It was pleasing coincidence that the anarchic Dada movement of art hit its peak just as film was becoming a serious art form itself.

Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), considered one of the first surreal experimental movies, was a dreamlike spectacle about a lustful priest’s fantasies. Then the infamous Un Chien Andalou (1929), helmed by Spanish surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, pushed the boundaries of symbolism. The famous painter, Dalí (The Persistence of Time, The Temtation of St. Anthony, The Great Masturbator, etc.), and the developing filmmaker, Buñuel (The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, etc.), made what is considered a masterpiece of surreal film Dadaism with Un Chien Andalou. What makes it so great is that despite its shocking  and bizarre imagery, there is nothing tying the ideas, visions, characters, or events together. It is actually just madness and doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. Both artists would explore this further in other works and they would team up again for the film L’Age d’Or (1930).

Filmmakers like Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Kenneth Anger (Eaux D’Artifice), Jean Cocteau (Testament of Orpheus), Alejandro Jodorwosky (The Holy Mountain), Mamoru Oshii (Angel’s Egg), The Brothers Quay (Piano Tuner of Earthquakes), Matthew Barney (Cremaster Cycle), David Lynch (Eraserhead), and many others like to dazzle and perplex us with dream imagery that does not always seem to make much sense. I confess that I do not always understand or appreciate modern art, but I do recognize that sometimes art is just ahead of its time.

One of the most enjoyably “ahead of its time” experimental movies I have had the pleasure of watching is Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947). Dreams That Money Can Buy is an anthology of surreal dream sequences wrapped up in a loose story about a man who can make people experience dreams. He runs his apartment like an office and accepts walk-in clients who want to experience something truly unique. The film is narrated by the main character, Joe (Jack Bittner). There is no spoken dialogue. Makes the onscreen conversing feel telepathic in a way. Each dream sequence was developed and directed by a different surreal artist. Max Ernst shows us aching desires in a strange, foliage and fog enshrouded bedchamber. Fernand Léger, puts on a glorious mannequin pageant show. We see Ruth, roses, and revolvers at a bizarre funeral from the mind of Man Ray. Marcel Duchamp spins a hypnotic trance of spiraling discs. Alexander Calder tames a wire toy circus and sets a ballet of mobiles dancing. Hans Richter orchestrated the whole thing and directed the final sequence in which Joe turns blue and familiar things get weird and burst into flames. If some of the artist’s names sound unfamiliar I guarantee you have at least seen some of their famous works in art books.

I really enjoyed this movie quite a bit and the visuals alone are not all that this colorful film have going for it. If the imagery is wild, kooky, and ahead of its time, wait until you hear the music. Great innovative composers each worked on a different dream. Experimental in sight and sound! Composers Paul Bowles, Josh White, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, David Diamond, and Louis Applebaum each collaborated with the visual artists to create a truly spellbinding feature. I liked the pictures (Léger, Duchamp, and Calder’s segments in particular), but I absolutely loved the music. It was so unlike anything I had heard in movies from this era. Sounds like this wouldn’t integrate themselves into film until the 1960s and yet Dreams That Money Can Buy was made in 1947. Richter really made sure all aspects of production were headed by great artists who were ahead of their time.

The film also has a sharp and clever sense of humor. It winks almost as much as a “Looney Tunes” cartoon. Dreams That Money Can Buy is a dazzling achievement and one that I will definitely be watching again. I can’t say you will like it as much as I did, but it is definitely a fascinating artifact worthy of inspection. It’s neat to see how each visual artist leaves their unmistakable marks on their filmed segments. Of course, Calder would use mobiles! Rather than deconstruct this film’s possible meanings, I’m just going to have to tell you to see it for yourself and become your own dream interpreter. I’m also going to cough and say that an American DVD distributor needs to pick this one up.

Enjoy. This is excellent vintage oddity.

picture references:

http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/dreams_money_can_buy_surrealist_feature_film_from_1947/

http://unbearablevision.tumblr.com/post/7144442902/lesdiaboliques-dreams-that-money-can-buy-1947

http://artforum.com/video/mode=large&id=20462

Talking Head Tells the Truth

Awhile back I re-watched two movies that I was initially very perplexed by. When I first watched these films I found myself at once curious and fascinated, but I ultimately didn’t know what to make of them. This time around I have new-found respect and admiration for them.  The films were   Stalker (1973) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (brilliant Russian auteur) and  True Stories (1986) directed by David Byrne (of the The Talking Heads). Guess which one I’ve decided to write about.

"I am not an alien."

“I am not an alien.”

I like The Talking Heads and I like unusual movies, but even I was unprepared for the ultra-mellow of True Stories and the ineffable affability of tour guide David Byrne (who always seems like an alien trying to pass for human). As the tagline insists, True Stories is “a completely cool, multi-purpose  movie.” This uber-light foray into the realm of film by Byrne is peculiar in a very 80′s music video kind of a way. In the tradition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), The Who’s Tommy (1975), Oingo Boingo’s Forbidden Zone (1980), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), True Stories is a musical featuring many familiar contemporary tunes (this time by The Talking Heads).

The fictitious town of Virgil, Texas is getting ready for their Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness and ten-gallon hat wearing David Byrne can’t help but investigate and share the town and townsfolk with the audience.

TrueStories-WifeWanted

Writer-director David Byrne escorts us through the excitement and weird drama amidst the mounting anticipation for celebration all with the utmost of nonthreatening nonchalance. As he pulls into a parking lot in his red convertible, Byrne tells the audience that what’s going on inside the building behind him “might be part of Virgil’s Celebration of Special-ness. . . or it might not be.”

Byrne introduces us to many odd characters, including the lovable bachelor Louis (John Goodman); homespun voodoo doctor Mr. Tucker (Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples); idiosyncratic but passionate town leader—who is not beyond incorporating a lobster dinner into a visual balletic illustration of how everything works—Earl Culver (Spalding Gray) and his pageant-running wife—whom he never speaks to—Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe); a compulsive liar (Jo Harvey Allen); a conspiracy-theory espousing preacher (John Ingle); and Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich she never has to leave her bed. The movie winds up following all these characters, but perhaps centers mostly around Louis and his quest to find a wife. Byrne wanders in and out of scenes, interacting with characters as old friends or new acquaintances, and then returns to speaking directly to the audience to prepare us for the Celebration to come.

Spalding Gray's economy lesson at dinner.

Spalding Gray’s economy lesson at dinner.

Byrne seems genuinely fascinated by these strange people and their habits as the film unfolds like some sort of peculiar musical experiment in anthropology. David Byrne claimed that most of the characters of True Stories were inspired by “true stories” in local newspapers. The movie features several songs from The Talking Heads including “Wild, Wild Life,” “Dream Operator” (one of my personal favorites from the film, sung by Annie McEnroe as a parade of unusual garments advance along a local fashion runway), “Puzzling Evidence,” “Papa Legba,” “People Like Us,” and others. The film is charming and extremely off-beat in its comedy style.

So what is the film about? Is it about the town of Virgil? Is it about the music? I think more likely it is about the people that make a town. Byrne displays a weird affection for each and everyone of these people. It’s a calming feeling to simply sit back and watch people with all their quirks and foibles live happily and peacefully without real conflict. Everyone has things on their mind, but everyone also shares the anticipation for the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness. Amidst it all they are united by one thing. Some have labeled this film a satirical parody of American small-town life that’s really having fun at the characters’ expense. I disagree. It’s not like Christopher Guest’s playful jab at small-town America in Waiting for Guffman (1996). True Stories, to me, feels like a tribute and wistful longing for the American small-town in all its idiosyncratic splendor. David Byrne (a Scotsman or possibly space alien) is celebrating the Special-ness of the American small-town, but he’s not afraid to make it an amusing or enjoyable excursion.

"It's a wild, wild life."

“It’s a wild, wild life.”

I like what Byrne says as he drives past several average suburban homes at the edge of the town. He says, “Who can say it isn’t beautiful? Sky. . . bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” Some might argue that the simplistic approach comes from a place of mean-spirited irony, but I am not convinced. David Byrne makes this place a place to love. The moments where he just drives along in his red convertible with the obviously rear-projected background rolling passed are priceless, humorous, simple, and gentle. That’s the word for this movie! Gentle. It’s a quiet, funny, and gentle ride into an American small-town and we know that life will be just as fine after we leave as when we were there and before we came.

truestoriescar

True Stories is a very pleasurable cult film with much humor and warmth. It captures the attitudes of pure-hearted small-town Americans and sets it to the tempo and sentiment of many a Talking Heads tune. Fans of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, John Goodman, quirky characters, off-beat comedy, or the 80′s really ought to take the time to revisit this gentle, little film. But pay attention. Underneath much of David Byrne’s humorous deadpan narration resonates a sobering echo of tranquility; of how magical even a place as seemingly mundane as Virgil can be. To quote Bill Watterson’s cartoon creation, Calvin, “it’s a magical world, Hobbes.” I’m inclined to think David Byrne agrees.

"We're on a road to nowhere."

“We’re on a road to nowhere.”

picture references:

artoftheguillotine.com

filmfanatic.org

ytimg.com

creativebloom.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 9, 2010.

Curio Curia

What is it about novelty exploitation cinema that tickles us so? What? You’re not tickled? Well, maybe it’s just me then.

A tumbleweed rolls by a stark western street. A buzzard caws and flaps away. A rock tumbles down a stony plateau. Suddenly, in the distance, the thunderous patter of horse hooves on the tough desert floor. A miniature carriage erupts passed a rickety wooden gate. It is pulled by a dozen adorable Shetland ponies. The diminutive driver whips the dwarf steeds to a fine halt and the little people inside disembark. It’s a wild west inhabited entirely by little people! So what do The Wizard of Oz and classic cowboy melodramas have in common? Well, if you’re referring to The Terror of Tiny Town they share a lot of the same cast (the Munchkins anyway).

Ruggero Deodato’s infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980)

Curios and novelty films are generally categorized by their kookiness and, occasionally, exploitation-type setups. Exploitation cinema generally targets specific obsessions such as blaxploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation, etc. They find a controversial theme and make the given novelty a sort of mini-genre unto itself. They went in waves…and the surf took a much harder pounding in the 1970s. There was a whole world of movies catering to all sorts of peculiar tastes and usually without the benefit of a large budget. Jungle cannibals, ethnic retoolings, vampire lesbians, shocking violence, schlocky monsters, and weird pagan rites abound in this realm.

Sometimes they weren’t just shocking or bad. I am actually particularly fond of a few of these oddball curios. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) was an all little-person cast cowboy movie and it was never meant to be a really good movie, but you know what? I liked it. Chained for Life (1951) starring the famous conjoined twins, the Hilton Sisters, and the legendary original shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962) are also worthy of a looksie in my opinion. They may not have been made to be great, but they might just still entertain you.

tiny town

The Terror of Tiny Town is a fun little western flick with all the classic twists of a full-size cowboy melodrama. This movie gets written off as a mere triviality, but it’s actually a prime example of how an endearing curio can work. There is nothing in the plot, characters, or random musical numbers that is particularly great. It’s your typically thin B-grade ’30s cowboy plot with the good guys and the bad guys, and it would be great enjoyable pulp in any size. The kicker is that its novelty makes it something of a standout. If the cast was full of big people nobody would care about this movie, but since the story has been adapted for all folks under 4′ 10″ it becomes unique. I was actually surprised the film didn’t take more cheap shots at its stars (considering it’s supposed to be an “exploitation” movie). Although scenes of ten-gallon-hat-wearing desperadoes walking underneath the saloon doors might be considered somewhat insensitive, it’s still a good joke and I do thrill at the racing Shetland pony-drawn coaches. It’s got some decent songs, laughs, action, and splosions.

What actually struck me as being more odd than a midget western, was that most of the actors had heavy German accents.

tiny town 2

As a fan of Time Bandits, For Y’ur Height Only, and Even Dwarfs Started Small I hesitate not to add The Terror of Tiny Town to my list of must-see little person movies.

Next movie! I first became acquainted with the conjoined Hilton Twins from the spectacular movie Freaks (1932), directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, The Unholy Three). They played the only thing they could play: themselves. Joined at the hip, the Hilton Twins had to do everything together. A popular vaudeville act, they were used to being billed as a novelty, but one thing you definitely notice when watching them in both Freaks and Chained for Life is that they are very natural and there really isn’t anything “freakish” about them. 

chained for life'

Chained for Life (director Harry Fraser’s last film) has Violet and Daisy Hilton starring as a conjoined Vaudeville singing act, Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton (not too big a stretch with the names there). The movie is a sort of flashback from a trial. Vivian has murdered her sister Dorothy’s husband, but the courts are not sure how to prosecute the guilty party while sparing the innocent. Through the many testimonial flashbacks we see how it all happened. Dorothy was conned into a publicity marriage by her manager (played by Allen Jenkins who I mainly remember as being the elevator guy in Pillow Talk) and a slick double-crossing stage magician, Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval). The movie depicts Dorothy’s longing to be separated so she can have a normal life; Vivian’s shrewdness and ardent distrust for Andre; and Andre’s two-timing. The courts refuse to let Dorothy obtain a marriage license because they would consider it bigamy. They are outraged, but they make it swing via an oblivious blind minister. After the publicity marriage, Andre dumps Dorothy and Vivian vengefully murders him. The film avoids resolution and instead tries to stump the audience with its bookend scenes of the judge (Norval Mithcell) openly asking the audience how he should rule.

chained shot

A few things that make Chained for Life so intriguing is how they manage to keep half the twins in the dark about certain information. Usually one has to be asleep or there’s a curtain between them. It tends to create very odd juxtapositions that almost feel like a metaphor for the dual nature of mankind. The other fun aspect of the film is the frequent use of Vaudeville acts (I suspect to pad the film to feature-length). There’s a wise-cracking juggler, a man who does bicycle stunts, and an accordion player who blasts through The William Tell Overture in record time, in addition to the Hilton Twins three duets they sing together.

It’s meant to be pulpy and forgettable, but it does delve into some fascinating subject matter regarding the lives and limitations of conjoined twins (particularly in the prudent early 1950s). All in all Freaks is a billion times better, but this is a welcome treat for people who want more of the Hilton Twins.

mondocane2

Mondo Cane (1962) is famous for being what is considered the first shock-umentary. Shockumentaries take controversial, perverse, sensational, disturbing, and yes, shocking, documentary subjects and show you, the viewer, just what kind of strange sickness exists in this world. Often times they stage much of the main action and embellish the facts to make things more than what they really are. Mondo Cane was the first and would influence a whole new genre, the most famous offspring being Faces of Death (1980) and its sequels. Cane, the product of filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi, is a warped, ironic, and actually quite humorous look into strange and disturbing customs all around the world. Where the film obtains its charm is not from its unflinching gluttony for its disturbing subject matter, but the humor it finds in juxtaposing the most bizarre and grotesque exotic rituals with more familiar “civilized” acts that mirror them. This film loves irony. Almost the whole movie could be described by a narrator saying, “You think that’s gross? Well, take a look at what your neighbor does.” The narrator is probably the best part of the movie too. He almost sounds like the guiding voice through a classic Disneyland ride like The Haunted Mansion. 

You will see pet cemeteries; people cutting their legs with broken glass as they run through the streets; geese force-fed meal all day; tribal ladies cooped up in cages and waited upon; dogs being cooked; people exalting effigies of Rudolfo Valentino; women painting their bodies blue to create “art”; a woman breastfeeding a pig; Japanese businessmen getting hosed off in a strange spa; shark torture; and much, much, much more.

mondo_cane

Although some of the movie is fabrication, that is not necessarily the point. Flaherty staged a lot for Nanook of the North (1922) to show the world what the life of an Eskimo might look like, not necessarily an Eskimo named “Nanook” specifically. Cavara, Jacopetti, and Prosperi just want to have fun at your expense and present the world as one weird, sick, funny place. More than present true realities, it wants you to reconsider your own lifestyle before judging others and it attempts to put these seemingly shocking incongruities in perspective. I may not appreciate the entire shockumentary mentality, but I did enjoy Mondo Cane.

These movies sometimes get unfairly looked down upon, but you know something? They’re still entertaining little curios, novelty or not. For singing dwarf cowboys, conjoined twin murder trials, and a buffet of international eccentricities check out The Terror of Tiny Town, Chained for Life, and Mondo Cane.

Alice in Svankmajerland

I once had a double-feature with this movie and The Happiness of the Katakuris. It was epic, I tell you.

Curiouser and curiouser!

As some held their breath in eager anticipation to see what director Tim Burton (Batman, Ed Wood) would do to Lewis Carroll’s much-celebrated—and oft times committed to celluloid—classic novel, I recalled an earlier adaptation: Jan Svankmajer’s  Alice (aka Neco z Alenky) (1988). If you are like me and hated the Burton incarnation then maybe you should check this one out.

Don't be scared.

Here’s Alice…

I am a huge fan of Lewis Carroll’s work and both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) and am always excited to see another artist’s take on the strange tale. The earliest film adaptation I’ve seen was Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland which was made in 1903. It’s a charming short film with some interesting effects. The most famous version is probably Walt Disney’s 1951 animated classic. The Disney cartoon is full of wonderful colors and imaginative surprises and deserves its slot next to Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) as some of Disney’s finest animated achievements (those are my personal favorites anyway). Lewis Carroll’s book has been filmed so many times and has employed the aid of such talents as Peter Sellers, W. C. Fields, Kate Beckinsale, Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp, and even once scored by Ravi Shankar, but perhaps the most innovative and fascinating take on this treasured story is from the soil and pipe-filled mind of surreal Czech animator, Jan Svankmajer (Faust, Conspirators of PleasureLittle Otik, and Lunacy).

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

As a fan and follower of Mr. Svankmajer and a great admirer of his aforementioned features and short subject works (The Ossuary, Dimensions of Dialogue, Down to the Cellar, Et Cetera, etc.), I can honestly say that Alice (1988) is my favorite of his. Despite the stylistic liberties the jarring and idiosyncratic director takes, Svankmajer stays surprisingly true to the spirit and the plot (or plotlessness) of Carroll’s book—it does lack the poetry and clever wordplay, but Svankmajer employs his own unique brand of humor and wit. Those of you familiar with the story of Alice and her adventures will recall it all began when Alice followed a little white rabbit down a tunnel where she became suddenly immersed in a world of nonsense. By combining live action (mostly the part of Alice played by Kristyna Kohoutova) and brain-bending stop-motion, Svankmajer fashions a dark, near-nightmarish world fashioned from earth, termite-ridden wood, peeling paint, drafty basements, sawdust, animal skeletons, rotting meat and vegetables (all his favorite obsessions).

alice cookies

Magic cookies!

The White Rabbit is a taxidermy beast with bug-eyes, a velvet hat and coat, and a huge rip in his chest that bleeds wood chips and sawdust (so he fastens himself shut with a safety pin, licks clean his pocket watch, and scurries off hastily). Alice pursues the White Rabbit across a barren field of plowed dirt where she crawls into a writing desk and emerges in a dank, winding basement. She tumbles through the floor, takes a dark, ramshackle elevator passing skulls and jars of preserved foods. Alice grows big and small in a tiny, dirty room while she sobs about not being able to get into the beautiful garden on the other side of the door. Alice is harassed by an army of animals sculpted from the mismatched bones and bits of strange creatures, crockery, and other taxidermy critters. She frequently becomes a toy doll during the course of her journey as well. Alice enters a room full of tube socks burrowing through the wooden floors whilst she converses with a denture-wearing “Caterpillar.” She participates in a hallucinatory tea party with the wind-up March Hare and wooden, obsessive-compulsive Mad Hatter. She accepts the Fish Footman’s invitation and is placed on trial before the Queen of Hearts where a most nonsensical proceeding follows.

Bwahahahaha!

Bwahahahaha!

There is no music and almost no dialogue—every spoken word is uttered by Alice herself and the camera cuts away to an extreme closeup of Alice’s mouth reciting “said the white rabbit/caterpillar/mad hatter, etc.”

Did I molt again?

Did I molt again?

Svankmajer does little to alter the story, but his visuals are not exactly inspired by Sir John Tenniel. The oneiric atmosphere is startling and disturbing. It’s a film you can almost taste and feel underneath your fingernails. Watching Alice is like watching a tapeworm choke out a mouse dressed as the pope, it’s disgusting but at the same time immensely unique and sort of funny. Svankmajer is a master of textures (and none of them smooth or soft). He likes the dirt and pine needles strewn about the floor and the coming of the maggots when the meat turns rancid. These are fascinating subjects that he explores in many of his works. Svankmajer seems to like to give every minuscule object a history and past. Every nick in the chair, every bit of mold in the drain, every stain on the wall, or gnawed bit of turnip tells a story and makes the atmosphere alive and dense in an almost too vivid and unsettling way. He is a filmmaker you will either love or hate. His visuals are potent. His comedy is dark and strange. His sound effects are abrasive and tinny. And his take on Alice might be the most original.

"Time's fun when you're having flies." ---Kermit the Frog

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” —Kermit the Frog

If you don’t like uncooked steaks scuttling across a shelf or for bread to sprout nails when you try to bite it or if the thought of a mouse pounding spikes into your head and building a fire in your hair bothers you, then perhaps this movie is not for you. If you don’t like the taste of sawdust, ink, or fruit jams filled with tacks then maybe you should watch something else. If dark, enclosed, cold spaces full of bony creatures lurking in the corners aren’t your cup of tea then I suggest you do something else with your time. HOWEVER, if you are bold and adventurous and willing to experience a different type of filmmaking then I hesitate not to recommend this brilliantly bent masterpiece of the surreal. For tickets to live in the wet and warped mind of Jan Svankmajer for an hour and a half, find a copy of Alice (1988). You’ll never forget where he takes you. Consider yourself warned. Now go with my blessing.

Keep your temper.

Keep your temper.

And for godsakes, skip the Burton one.

alice test gif

SHIRT?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 16, 2010.

The Lost lobmyS

luchador prepares

unaware of PJ Man

molesting angels.

There. I attempted haiku. It may not be a good one, but no shame in trying.

Symbol (2009) is 2001: a Space Odyssey on magic pills.

where am I?

As I sit down and make ready to adequately report my findings in this singularly unique film I am confounded by a glaring roadblock. How can I describe this film without spoiling its many surprises?

Indeed, the whole film is one enigmatic surprise after another that only escalates in seemingly reckless absurdity until its inevitable point of conclusive befuddlement. It feels like a lost chapter of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It feels like a warped episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. It feels…unmistakably Japanese—despite the Mexican luchador subplot.

symbol dogHitoshi Matsumoto (Big Man Japan) directs, writes, and stars as a frustrated man in pajamas. This man wakes up in an empty white room with no doors and no windows. Also the walls are speckled with the protruding genitalia of thousands of mirthful cherubim.

A touch bewildered, the man experiments with these putty phalluses to discern their nature and to perhaps ascertain how he may exit this surreal riddle. When fomented via a light pressure from the index finger, the squishy penises burp angelical melodic notes of varying pitch and then the walls spew forth random objects. One phallus will produce a bonsai tree while another will produce bottled soy sauce or a scampering Zulu tribesman. The man tests different suggestive protuberances, all with equally bizarre and random results.

Meanwhile! …in Mexico, a portly underdog luchador gets a ride in a battered pickup truck. The driver: a chain-smoking nun with sunglasses…who is also his daughter. Sporadically the movie will return to the plot of the lucha libre fighter, Escargot Man, and his young son. But it is rarely accompanied by orienting information provided concerning these characters or how they might coincide with the outlying storyline of the man in the room upholstered in baby wang.

This is as far as I can lead you without spoiling the film for you. If you would care to read on you are most welcome, but be warned that it will undercut much of the surprise this film has, and surprise is one of this film’s greatest assets. If you want Symbol to stay pure, unsquelched spontaneity so you can watch it one day with an empty head then only read the next two paragraphs. Then stop.

I will say this: I really enjoyed the film quite a lot. It was alienating and didn’t make sense. My cup of tea. It was random and off the wall (literally) and I actually laughed out loud a lot during the movie. There is a visual and conceptual comic nonsense that I found smart, unique, and very funny. It’s a twisted sort of symbolism to be sure, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to anybody. For the people predisposed to love this sort of cultural oddity, I say pursue it. For those predisposed to despise films of this ilk, watch it anyway so the rest of us can watch your face contort in disgust. Where I found  Big Man Japan only somewhat humorous as an intermittently enjoyable take on Japan’s kooky history with big monsters and big heroes, Symbol is much more polished and far more consistently clever and amusing. Big Man Japan was alright, but Symbol simply must be watched. The special effects (which are purely unique in both their style and execution) are also really great.

I went into this film with only as much as the vague trailer permitted me to know (which wasn’t much). Thirty minutes in I was still lost. An hour in I was hopeless to find any sense or reason in this jangled, yet enjoyable, Japanese novelty. In the homestretch, certain things, I admit, were illuminated, but they raised many new questions and these new questions were of a much heavier weight.

Obligatory SPOILER ALERT! Seriously. There are spoilers ahead. I could ruin the whole film for you. I’m in just the sort of strange mood where I just might do it too. And I hate spoilers. I blame the moon right now. I saw it driving back from Long Beach this evening. It hung low and orange in the polluted murk of what Southern Californians dub “the sky” and there were eerie streaks from dark, stretched clouds slicing into its corners like fork scrapes out of a Halloween cupcake. It was perfect werewolf weather, I tell you.

symbol1

Symbol starts out as an endurance test for how much strange the protagonist (and the audience) can take. It transmogrifies into a fantastically weird journey of spiritual transcendence. The man uses the random objects to solve the puzzle and escape this incessantly circumcised room…only to get trapped in a sort of limbo space before he becomes the captive of yet another room, this time impossibly larger, darker, and the members more mature. At the first, I suspected him to be the subject of some peculiar alien science experiment, but things are far more interesting than that. Symbol, despite its insufferable whimsy, is really a unique theological and philosophical interpretation on why anything is anything. By the end of the film you will still have many questions, but you will definitely feel like you went somewhere and that all of the time and work was well worth it.

In the new room the adult angel penises exact invisible changes. Invisible, that is, to our main protagonist, but they produce shocking effects in the real world. The luchador, Escargot Man, emerges the victor due to a freak involuntary mutation (easily one of the weirdest jokes in movie history). A KISS knockoff rocker gets a spontaneous dose of combustible breath. An elephant trips as he jogs across the Serengeti. Apparently everything in the world happens because of a man fondling heavenly scrota. Makes ya think.

Soon the man has mastered the schlongs and propels himself eternally upward on what (from a safe distance) might appear to be a great rock wall. With each new John Thomas touched, new and increasingly profound things happen all over the world. It becomes an orgiastic ballet of climbing, fondling, and sparking grandeur. Ultimately this leads to a room with an embossed map of the world and the ultimate wall Willie. Is the Japanese gentleman in the polka-dot pajamas a god? Are there other rooms like this? Is he the only one? Who set up the experiment to make this man a god? What does all of this mean? Were we really just investing all that time with Escargot Man and his family for that one weird joke? I don’t know much, but the answer to the last question is yes and the payoff was totally worth it.

In a time where there seems to be a lack of originality in the world of film (especially comedy), it’s nice to know we still have people like Hitoshi Matsumoto around. He may cater to a specific taste, but God help me if I don’t feel catered to.  Sometimes philosophy, art, theology, and the realm of Mexican wrestling need a healthy dose of humor. I’m still not entirely sure what it all was supposed to mean, but I laughed and had fun and I would definitely see it again…now when in that pesky US release coming?!

symbol2

Even if you hate every second of Matsumoto’s lunacy you will have to admit that you will never see a film like this again.

picture references:

http://loveandpop.com/bulletsnbabesdvd.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=5769

http://icelandchronicles.com/2010/10/riff-day-9-symbol-by-hitoshi-matsumoto/

http://kino-real.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html

The Abduction of Zack Butterfield by the Coed April McKenna

I really love bad movies sometimes. I feel like they get me. I love Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, Birdemic, Starcrash, The RoomTurkish Star Wars, Night of the Lepus, the whole Godzilla series, you name it. I genuinely like these guys. They get strange and seemingly inexplicable cult followings too. Naturally, I have a dedicated perimeter of friends who are always on the lookout for new potential entries into the pantheon of cinematic crapdom.

There is a new movie. It is the progeny of writer/director/producer/editor (always a dangerous sign) Rick Lancaster. It is The Abduction of Zack Butterfield (aka The Last Days of April) (2011). I saw this film with some friends and fellow Chroniclers on its first run at the Laemmle on Sunset Blvd. It was one of the few theaters we could find that would even screen it. Half of our party was fighting illness, but the trailer had so enticed us. We took a wrong turn getting off the 101 freeway and we were running late as it was, but we simply had to get there. We parked in the wrong structure too and so could not get our ticket validated. The fates bellowed and laughed, but we purchased our tickets anyway and marched into the darkened theater just as the opening credits started. We made it. Take that, fates.

Can I put my shirt back on?

Can I put my shirt back on?

 

It takes place in upstate New York (ah, me old stomping grounds). The film was the story of a 15 year old boy who gets kidnapped by former mercenary, April, with a sad (and boring) backstory that leads her into insanity. She wants to make the perfect man for herself so she can recapture her lost teen years. . . so get ‘em young, right? April has an explosive necklace attached to Zack so he won’t escape and then she forces him to do chores around the house in some truly nauseating tight bicycle shorts. There is NO need for a codpiece to be that accentuating. They bang a few times (which is extra gross because Zack looks like he’s about 10 years old), but he only does it to lull her into a false sense of security and plan his escape.

The police frequent Zack’s home to remind his parents that there is little hope they will find him. The tubby sheriff was my favorite character. I could almost picture his face after climbing a flight of stairs. You can even see the lav mic peeking around from behind his tie when he sits down. What else, what else…hmm…oh, the acting is terrible (naturally), the characters are laughable, and the dialogue is hilariously awkward. The plot is stupid and completely devoid of tension, suspense, atmosphere and there is little art in the setup of any shot or scene. I get that they’re trying to be edgy and Misery-esque, but nothing works. It’s wall-to-wall awful. I will say only this of Zack Butterfield, it’s definitely wretched and I laughed quite a bit, but I doubt it will have the cult following of some of the classic baddies. The filmmakers had to be either a group of prepubescent boys or else they were criminally irresponsible perverts. I can see a group of 12 year old boys thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if we like made a movie where there was like a hot chick who like kidnapped you and made you have sex with her? That would be cool, dude.” Anyone beyond puberty should be locked up for this garbage.

"Love is like a truck." What the heck was that about?

“Love is like a truck.” What the heck was that about?

One more thing! The theater actually had at least one person who genuinely enjoyed the film as a serious dramatic psychosexual thriller. He mumbled every time we made a joke or laughed at this ludicrous, pedophilic trainwreck. I couldn’t believe someone would view this film un-ironically. Even if someone absent-mindedly wandered into the theater with no pretext you would still think they would eventually realize that what they were looking at was bad. Maybe not. Perhaps there is a real audience for this film and I’m just missing something.

Perhaps the film does have a certain weird realism to it. A lot of real people are this dumb and would probably act and react the way the characters do in this movie’s situations. No heightened drama and no super elaborate plan conjured by unbelievable (but enjoyable) intelligent people. This is real cinéma vérité, ladies and gentlemen! And it’s near unwatchable. To each his own, I suppose. I just don’t see it. You should watch the trailer anyway.

If you love great indie thrillers. . . look somewhere else. Somewhere very far.

I love Los Angeles.

 

Native American disguise!

Native American disguise!

 

For more Alternative Chronicle questionable movie reviews check out: C.H.U.D.S., The Beast of Yucca Flats, For Y’ur Height Only (although I really love this movie), Endhiran, the complete Planet of the Apes, and more.

http://www.theabductionofzackbutterfield.com/moviestillsthumbs.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 30, 2011.