Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

If I, Aguirre, command the birds to drop dead from the trees, then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of God. The earth I pass will see me and tremble.

No retrospective on weird, antisocial cinema would be complete without acknowledging German director, Werner Herzog. Perhaps known better as a documentarian, Herzog’s early work was characterized by adventures into the heart of human darkness. The primary theme can, perhaps, be summarized by the title of his book about the filming of Fitzcaraldo entitled The Conquest of the Useless. Herzog, along with being one of the smartest human beings on the planet, looks at the species for what it is. Early films such as Aguirre were studies in the cruelty and greed that characterizes the human species, especially when it contemplates grand designs. All too often we become thralls to the insanity of others. If you are interested in the ways that individuals will martial resources to create monuments to their own egos, this might be a film you would enjoy.

 The history between Klaus Kinski and Herzog is already well-known to most film students. But if you are unfamiliar with them, the two comprised a formidable duo. In this film Kinski plays Don Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish mercenary that committed mutiny by usurping an 16th Century expedition down the Amazon River in search of the lost city of El Dorado. Kinski has been characterized by Herzog as functionally psychotic, often times raging for hours. Given that this film is shot on location under extreme duress from the weather and the environment, Kinski’s rages were highly problematic. I cannot offer an accurate analysis of Herzog’s personality, as his intellectual gifts mask the madness that drove him to these projects. He noted that, on one of these South American shoots, the indigenous people became so alarmed by Kinski’s behavior they offered to kill him. The result of these tense, explosive performances are films like Aguirre.

 The narrative of Aguirre is simple. Spanish conquerors, who subjugated the Incan Empire (one of the largest land empires in history) in a matter of a few years, worked to squeeze every drop of gold they could from the new world. From a historical standpoint, many of the Spanish mercenaries who came late to the party felt like they were getting cut out from the big hauls. The real life Aguirre was one of these. He was tough, battle-hardened, and walked with a limp from a prior battle. He was also, quite likely, a sociopath. I will simply say that Kinski nails this part. He steals most of the show. To complicate matters, the historical Aguirre decided to bring along his teenage daughter as part of the expedition, doting on her like a queen. Herzog leaves the suggestion open that it is Aguirre’s intent to breed with his daughter and establish a new empire to challenge the Spanish crown. The film documents the expedition’s depredations and descent into madness.

 Those trained by modern blockbusters might find parts of the film slow going. But, taken for what it is, the work is simply mesmerizing. There a few scenes of people signing documents, but this is what the Spanish did. The signing of declarations often took place in public with great pomp. Here the films is very historically accurate. But there is more to it. Herzog is able to catch shots that other directors miss. There is one scene where an iridescent butterfly perches on Aguirre’s shoulder, then moves to his arm—as if following the actor’s gaze. I also want to point out the actor Helena Rojo, who plays the expedition’s original leader’s wife (Aguirre usurps his authority). She is the only one in the film with the courage to stand-up to his paranoia and her character resolution is a rare moment of cinematic beauty.

 In short, this is a great film for a meditative mood. It just takes you along with the flow the same way the great river carried its occupants away so many centuries ago, anxious to meet their collective doom.

 Rating: 4 Hits

Blood Mania (1970)

Daddy: One of the few pleasures I have left in life is watching you try to get your claws into Dr. Craig Cooper and failing.

Victoria: Now Daddy, you don’t want to upset yourself.

You know how porn movies used to try and imitate real movies? Blood Mania is a real movie masquerading as soft porn. I’m not saying that it isn’t littered with its share of contrived nude scenes and some wooden acting, but the real show here is human pathology on full display. The plot revolves around Dr. Craig Cooper trying to dodge a blackmailer who is threatening to expose his past as an abortionist. Enter Victoria Carpenter, a mentally unstable artist who is taking care of her wealthy invalid father. She offers to pay the blackmailer in exchange for Cooper’s hand in marriage. The only problem is her pugnacious father who spends his days hurling snide comments at her refuses to die. This is definitely one of those 70s movies that modern producers would never touch. If you need trigger warnings, don’t watch it. Some key themes include patricide, masturbating while watching someone die, and Amyl nitrate sex and murder. This is definitely a sativa style narrative. If you can allow yourself identify with the character’s fear of exposure, you’re in for a fun hour and twenty minutes.

 What’s not to like?

The real show here is Maria De Aragon. You won’t find a lot of movies with her name on the marquis, but when you start off with a role like this, it’s understandable. This movie really dips into the sickness that lurks behind those suburban hedgerows. It’s not the type of role that it is easy to recover from. She starts off the movie on low heat, then slowly starts to build. This one’s a schemer. She’s a woman on a mission and will use any means at her disposal to get what she wants, including using the chemicals she finds in her daddy’s medicine cabinet to seduce the reluctant doctor. Meanwhile she’s just painting away in her room. Then she starts to go onto full boil. Finally the whole thing just descends into complete madness. I will stand by the statement that this movie contains the best will-reading scene in the entirety of cinema. Now it’s flawed in its own ways and definitely contains some sexual detours, but if you’re interested in a text that shreds the illusion of the happy domestic sphere and cracks open all of the shameful vices of the suburban culture that spawned it, this is the one to watch. The key theme is shame. Shame is a means of control. You must use it to regulate your appetites or they will rise from the depths to devour you like some terrible fish.

That and watch out for crazy women—especially ones who paint.

 Rating: 3 Hits

Repo Man (1984):

Best goddamn car in the yard.

 There are some films that are simply unique. They almost constitute their own genre. Repo Man is this type of movie. The first time I saw it shortly after its release I was completely blown away. Alex Cox is one of those directors that had one surge of genius in him, and it was on full display in this dense text. I hate to use words like zeitgeist, but it almost makes sense here. It was an unconscious spasm embodying a time and place where cultural pathologies mingled, forming strange alliances. On the surface the film follows the adventures of a directionless young punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who falls in with a jaded repo man (Harry Dean Stanton). They spend much of the film in pursuit of an elusive 1964 Chevy Malibu driven by a lobotomized scientist (Fox Harris) in the final stages of radiation sickness who is driving around L.A. with a trunk full of dead aliens. This is sometimes called a cult film, but it might be better labeled a forgotten anthem.

 This film is intersectional in nature. Once again it is one of those dense texts that reward concentration. Everything from the signs in the background to the voices on the radio convey secret meaning. The environment speaks to you, if only you are willing to listen. It is distilled paranoia. First, it is one of the few films I am aware of that made extensive use of bands from the LA underground, particularly Iggy Pop. But the film does not wallow in its own angst. It bards back to the Weekly World News and headlines about Elvis’ imprisonment by aliens. In this world of grit and generic labels, we see the unique reality of West Coast weirdness on full display. When you combine the wide-angle shots with the flamboyant punks, government agents, and car thieves that populate this unique universe, you glimpse the world through a unique spectrum of narratives that arrive closer to the truth than any newscast.

The film almost seems episodic in nature, but Cox is able to extract meaning in the end. To borrow from the new cognitive sciences, there is the self that experiences and the self that narrates. This film does not look for resolution of this conflict as most do, but attempts instead to hold them in an unsteady tension. Also, while this is certainly a male-centered narrative, it is not sexually exploitative and actually contains a number of strong female characters who definitely do not fall into the victim category.

When I first saw it I thought that the alien subplot was a bit of a red-herring because I was overly focused on the music. It is important to remember that UFO religions were springing up all up and down the coast in the 80s, and thus represented a last ditch effort at transcendence from a culture that had long since abandoned the sacred. It’s not so much that the film tries to kill god, but recognizes that god is increasingly irrelevant.

And yes… If I ever get a classic car—it will be a mid-sixties Chevy Malibu.

Rating: 5 Hits

Legacy of Blood: 1971

Legacy of Blood (1971)

But Honey, why would the sheriff’s head end up in the refrigerator?

This movie is not Citizen Kane, but I am tossing it out there to have some fun. I’m also curious if anyone else plays IMBd death pool. This is one of those reading-of-the-will movies where the children gather to honor their much disliked father. The dead patriarch is played by John Carradine who is in late-career form for this one—lots of leering and weird smirks. It also features some nice acting from Ivy Bethune as Elga the maid; Brooke Mills as the neurotic nympho, drug addict daughter; Buck Kartalian as the creepy butler (suitably named Igor); Richard Davlos as the playboy younger son; Jeff Morrow as the hip older son; and particularly good performances by the Faith Domergue in one of her last roles along with western star John Russel who plays the chauffer who sports a luger and has a lampshade made from a German soldier. The violence is composed of PG13 style decapitations and the occasional body ending up in the fish tank. Think of this film as an episode of Game of Thrones, only the CGI fight scenes are replaced by dialogue and character development.

 

While this move is not high on the scale of artistic achievement, it was one of those late night classics that made the rounds of local TV stations in the 70s. A little too hardcore for primetime, stations would air it after midnight when the TV police had gone to bed. With that being said, if you like last-person-standing types of movies, this one weathers the test of time. Some of the major themes are greed, incest, and sadomasochism. It fits the bill for SNBC because it contains important lessons for those with troubled pasts: Don’t ever go home. Those people are crazy.

 

As an aside, this movie had me wondering if anyone else watches old movies, then scans the IMBd listings to see who’s still alive. This one features only two members of the original cast still listed among the living: Ivy Bethune, who currently resides in Sevastopol, and Brooke Mills. Obviously, I wish both of these lovely women long and happy lives, but it makes me wonder what it might be like to be the last person left alive of a movie cast. Death performs a weird arc in the lives of some people. Generally speaking, the older you get, the closer death creeps toward you as more and more people you know succumb. I know some folks that are so old, they’re almost running out of friends. So what is it like to be the last person left alive on a list like this one? What does it feel like to attend a class reunion of two? Or one for that matter? Is it a feeling of accomplishment, or are you just thinking, “Shit, can we just get this over with?”

 

These morbid ruminations aside, I would like the recommend this film to those who want to enjoy some decently-written horror and maybe have a few laughs along the way. All of the actors are skilled, though toward the end of their careers. That means plenty of overacting. There is some clunky dialogue and a few clutzy moments around the pool table and dart board. But the cast are professionals, doing their job right down to the final gun. It’s a good one to watch with a small group, provided that the participants are cool. You want to be in an upbeat mood for this one. There are no buzzkills. But it provides a suitably dark portrait of the human spirit. Just pick your horse and enjoy the ride.

 

Rating: 2 Hits

Liquid Sky: 1982

 

And I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable.

And to be fashionable is to be androgynous.

And I am androgynous not less that David Bowie himself.

And they call me beautiful.

And I kill with my cunt. 

 

This is a very unhappy movie. Russian/Israeli director Slava Tsukerman’s vision of the New York underground reminds me of a Victorian anthropologist coming to terms with an island full of cannibals. While often referred to as a punk rock movie, this assessment isn’t accurate. It’s a forerunner of a fashion/music trended termed New Wave. This aesthetic impulse was the final iteration of commercial culture that attempted a breakout from conventional paradigms, only to find there was nowhere to go. Heavily influenced by the dehumanization of modernism and the delusions of postmodernism, this movie takes viewers through the nightmare underworld of a culture desperate for innovation, yet only succeeding in alienating people from their art as well as one another. And, it contains one of the coolest science fiction concepts I have encountered.

 

First, let’s do the trigger warnings. This movie is deeply embedded in the culture of addiction and the main protagonist Margaret (played beautifully by Anne Carlisle) is the subject of repeated nonconsensual sexual encounters. I am not a big fan of rape scenes, particularly when they are presented as a lame excuse for titillating nudity. That is not the case here as the scenes seem to be symbolic of the manner in which beauty itself has been raped by the modernist aesthetic. Interestingly, there’s no nudity in the film as all of the sex scenes take place with the participants fully clothed, almost as if they are simply vignettes pulled from the pages of the vacant fashion magazine that still adorn American shelves. While these scenes are not gratuitous from a nudity or violence standpoint, there is something authentic in the dialogue and blocking that make them very disturbing. But the movie rewards the viewer with moments of poetic insight, marking those moments where the mass culture shatters against its own drive toward novelty.

 

The film is about a flying saucer landing on a rooftop in New York. The aliens in this ship begin harvesting the dopamine produced in the human brain during orgasm and/or heroine highs. Carlisle’s portrayal of a fashion model named Margaret is inspired. She beautifully navigates the relentless, plodding universe of banging synthesizers and self-indulgent performance art. Her character begins the movie someone laconic, almost like a mannequin in a store window, then slowly blossoms into full-blown mania toward the climax of the film. Carlisle also portrays Margaret’s narcissistic, sneering, drug addict alter ego, Jimmy. While this is not the first movie to play around with androgyny, it portrays issues of sexuality and gender in a way that was groundbreaking at the time. It also imbeds these conversations in the aesthetics of market exploitation. Think of Project Runway on PCP after three days without sleep. The film is also worthwhile for a really memorable performance by Paula Sheppard who plays Margaret’s performance artist girlfriend Adrian. “I always wanted to fuck a dead body,” she says when the corpses begin piling up in their apartment. Their relationship is sick and tenuous, reminding us that, in this world, all human covenants are brittle.  

 

There are aspects of the movie that modern viewers will find difficult to connect with. The pacing is steady and the lingering shots of the New York cityscape may not appeal to a contemporary sensibility. It should be noted that some of the acting in a couple of the subplots is wooden. Also, while Margaret is adorned like some exotic bird of paradise, many of the costumes in the clubs date the film. But, if you have ever wondered why the popular culture has reverted to endless repetitions of remakes, sequels and prequels of predigested narratives, this film gives you one answer. Humans can only innovate so much. When art is purely self-referential, it becomes a nightmare where people consume one another for nothing more than an orgasm. As a result, Margaret’s attempts to bring beauty to the world of steel and glass are met with violence and degradation. This was the nightmare underbelly of the New Wave, destined to be torn apart by an unholy alliance between modernism and individualism. At least Margaret finally finds her own means of transcendence, but at what cost? When there is nothing left to consume, one is left to devour oneself.

 

Rating: 4 Hits

Black Christmas 1974:

 

Random Sister: You know, that town girl was raped a couple of weeks ago.

Barb: Darling, you can’t rape a townie.

 

Here’s a little Canadian entry. It’s Christmas Eve and the girls at the sorority house are being stalked by a killer with a penchant for obscene phone calls. I’m going to make this one easy. I really don’t recommend watching the entire movie unless you are really on the edge of your seat about whether or not the main protagonist will have an abortion over the objections of her asshole boyfriend who plays atonal music down at the conservatory. Nope, there are only a couple of reasons to watch this movie. First, Marian Waldman does a nice job as the drunken house mother who needs to stay wasted to deal with her role as the chastity police for the sorority sisters. Anyone who has ever really needed a drink then found that forgotten bottle stashed away somewhere should really appreciate her character. But the real show is Margo Kidder playing the lead mean girl in the house. It’s a nice sativa film that provides more than a few laughs. Be warned. The humor is cutting and, at times, uncomfortable.

 

Barb is a complex character and I have to confess that I was rooting for her from the beginning. I almost had myself convinced she might make it, particularly because I had trouble discerning the actual protagonist. It’s like that around here—always playing the longshot. Why do the interesting ones always have to die? At least the viewer is treated to a complex female character in a traditional slasher movie. I have no doubt screenwriter Roy Moore must have known this person in real life. Barb resembles one of those traditional mean girls that would show up in later films. She almost gives the movie a bit of a Heathers vibe. She’s deeply damaged, but sleek and obscene. I suggest watching the film up until Barb passes-out. The rest is kind of downhill.

Margo Kidder plays this character brilliantly. Barb is intelligent and prone to making shocking statements (see above). It’s the kind of writing that one rarely sees in modern film. Her wealthy mother wants nothing to do with her, so Barb uses the sorority as her primary sphere of intimacy. The only problem is that intimacy is impossible for her. She connects to others through her capacity to shock. She is constantly lashing out at the universe—particularly at the good girls who do what they’re told. The entertainment value in the film comes from watching her perform—little moments that are alternatively amusing and dismaying for her audience. Once again, she’s too vivid not to be a real person. If you stick around for her character resolution, you will note it’s a brutal sequence (a crystal unicorn horn?) in an otherwise relatively tame movie. It’s almost as if the film needs to punish her in order to counterbalance the energy she brings to the screen. I wonder if the writer dated her at some point. There was quite a bit of rage there.

 

Barb… If you’re still out there, I hope you’re still giving them hell.

 

Rating: 3 Hits/Four Shots

 

 

The Witch Who Came In From The Sea (1976):

 

“I’m gonna break the bones, then suck the marrow!”

 

This is a complicated film—definitely not for the squeamish. Here is the short version. A woman played by Millie Perkins, an actor who started her career playing Anne Frank in 1959, seeks revenge for the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her sea captain father by castrating the hyper-masculine men she seduces. That’s the short version. But, like I said, it’s complicated.

 

Let’s start with what it’s not:

 

It is not a monotonous slasher film. If you are looking for a Friday the 13th type of experience, this is not it. The text is much too dense and cerebral.

It is not softcore porn. The sex scenes are far from gratifying.

It is not a troubled woman film such as in Repulsion (1965). The main character is far too complicated and far from hysterical. It is also better written.

 

The difficulty in defining the film is one of the primary reasons it has not been enjoyed by a wider audience. Hollywood can’t market what it can’t classify. You should prepare yourself for a deep dive into the psychology of a person suffering from PTSD. It’s definitely a sativa narrative—meditative and dark with moments of profound violence. It’s a hollow scream from the dark pit of the 70s. It’s probably not a good idea for survivors of sexual abuse to view this film unless they have really processed that material. It did receive a backlash at the time for the subject matter, which is saying something.

 

Perkins was evidently not proud of this movie. In an article by April Wolfe published in Film Comment, she notes that writer Robert Thom, who was then married to Perkins, wrote the script from a hospital bed on a morphine drip. They were desperate to pay the bills. Perkins asserted that it was only due to the supportive nature of the cast that she was able to complete the project. Her performance is memorable to say the least—oscillating between homicidal and helplessly catatonic—the settling into adrift and poetic.

 

I am not a big fan of comparative analogies, but here goes. This film might be thought of as a hybridization of Hal Ashby, Thomas Ligotti and Olivia Newton John. For those who do not know Ashby (Being There, Harold and Maude), he is one of the best directors of the 1970s. His films often featured damaged characters using the economic refuse and mass-mediated garbage of their time period to draw perilous connections with others. This film resembles these narratives in that it is imbricated within the commercial shaving culture of the 1970s. You might think of it as one of the earlier meditations on what some people today call “toxic masculinity.” How close do you want to be to the woman in your life? Don’t bruise the lady. For those unfamiliar with Thomas Ligotti, he is probably the best horror writer of his generation. His stories are not about vampires or werewolves coming to get you, but the externalization of a damaged central nervous system. Imagine your most nauseating depression. Imagine it as a physical place from which you can never escape. His work is like a fever dream where the characters try to break out of a sick, repetitive universe, but ultimately fail. The Witch has a similar vibe with is tiki bars and dark wood paneling. This is a world where no one elevates above their circumstances because the laws of physics will not allow it. And, as for Olivia Newton John… Remember the video to that song Physical? You know, the most popular song of the decade. Yep… Lots of speedos with bulging genitals—ripe for the picking. I did mention the castration, right?

 

I have to admit, I almost turned this one off, but I am glad I stayed. Perkins is surrounded by a group of acolytes who have become implicated in her life—like some type of collective codependency cult. You know the way certain charismatic, but psychologically damaged people can collect a following? They supply her with shelter from the authorities, emotional support and drugs. If you stick with the meditative flow of the film, it rewards you with a series of beautiful soliloquies tumbling from her lips. As she narrates her own psychosis, her familiars stand in mute witness to her contemplations of self-doubt and defiance. I think this is the reason the film was made. It’s some damn good writing.

 

There are a host of other reasons to watch this film if you have the stomach for it. The way she subverts the affection of her two nephews from her seamstress sister is disturbing to say the least. Also, you have to love the hairy, tanned 70s guy standing nude in a hot tub, cocktail in hand, along with two women. All this occurs while a couple of cynical, world-weary police detectives interview him. It reminds one that the aesthetics of one era often look sad and despairing when viewed through the lens of another. Once again, this is not a film for those still processing PTSD suffered from sexual abuse. It also contains coarse language regarding human sexuality that modern film and television avoids. So, this one has a select audience. But if you meet the film at its own level, it’s definitely worth your time.

 

Rating: 4 Hits/3 Shots

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974):

While many of the movies discussed on SNBC will be a bit more obscure, I have decided to go with a true classic for the first review. The reason for this is twofold. First, Tobe Hooper’s film is a masterpiece that left an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness and can serve as a touchstone for other films of this period. Second, I notice that many younger film viewers are often unaware of gems like this one, relying on lower quality sequels for accessing the mythos.

This is definitely a Sativa film. You will want to surrender yourself to the narrative. It suggests a central nervous system with amplified anxiety levels. The first thing I suggest is to be attentive to the rich visual and auditory environment that Hooper provides. Enjoy the bleak Texas landscape. Listen to the radio in the background. Everything in this film is claustrophobic and speaks to a culture imploding in its own senility. This is a universe where people commit suicide, refineries explode and cemeteries are defiled. The madness experienced by the characters is not unique, but an extension of the world around them—the world most people do not want to see.

I will not belabor the narrative since it is familiar to most horror fans. A group of young people travel through decaying, central Texas and stumble into the territory of a family of cannibals. They are traveling to Sally’s ancestral home, now being sucked back into the unforgiving Texas soil. Contrary to popular myth, it is not a gory film, but achieves all of its effects through strategies that are designed to evoke foreboding and panic. There are inspired performances by Marilyn Burns, who plays the protagonist Sally, and the trio of cannibals who each express differing types of psychosis (Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen, Jim Siedow). As antisocial as the characters are, they are also victims of the unforgiving landscape and climate, living in abject poverty. Murder and cannibalism is all they have. But I would like to give special attention to one of the often overlooked characters in the movie.

Among the group of unfortunate young people is Sally’s brother Franklin played by Paul Partain. I don’t know where Hooper found this guy, but he is terrific. Franklin drives the first half of the film and I believe he is one of the best written and best portrayed characters in cinematic history. Often, fans of this movie will describe how they find this character distasteful or anxiety provoking. He bothers them. That is exactly the point. Franklin, a wheelchair bound man with a morbid imagination, is constantly needling the viewer. The way his voice breaks when he is upset puts the viewer on edge. In the opening scene, where the annoyed travelers have to stop so he can urinate into a coffee can along the side of the road, illustrates the problems he represents. When the air-blast from a passing truck sends him tumbling down through the weeds, leaving him weeping in histrionics, the stage is set for a once in a lifetime performance.

Franklin is the only one in the group who can see the oncoming storm, though he cannot quite discern its outlines. At the same time, he is a burden to those around him. Perhaps this is the source of his heightened sensitivity. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when he and Sally fight over who is going to carry the flashlight when nightfall comes. As the crisis mounts, his desire to meet the oncoming threat is thwarted by his own inability to manage the profound self-pity that clouds his judgement. But it is precisely his helplessness and the way that he functions as an obstacle to those around him that puts the audience in the correct psychological state. He pisses-off many viewers, but because of his perceived helplessness, some of that anger must be suppressed. The suppression of anger often leads to profound anxiety. And that is why the first half of the movie works so well. He sets the stage for Sally’s ordeal as she travels through the slaughterhouse. She will learn the lesson well. As Charles Manson once said, “The truth is in your stockyards.”

Rating:

Five Hits/Two Shots

Saturday Night Bong-Water Cinema

This space is reserved for forthcoming reviews of antisocial films of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The 70s in particular was a dark decade with perverse strands of nihilism running through its discourse. This was not an age of redemption. The title of blog stems from the simple recognition that most of these films were made during a time period when many creators were experimenting with their central nervous systems. The results were often shocking and strange. There are currents in these movies that the sober, upright citizens we all strive to be will not fully appreciate. A few might be well-known, while others will be so obscure you need a bathysphere to dredge them out of the slime. This is an archival effort, commenting on the sort of movies we shall never see again. I welcome you to journey with me through the murky bongwater of the horror cinema of one of the truly strangest periods in American cultural history.