Fantastic Planet (1973)

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Until recently, we’ve tended to associate animated films with children, and treated animated films that deal with adult subjects as anomalies, or at best new discoveries. But animation has been around as long as cinema, and for much of its history it has been directed toward adult audiences as much as children. The French/Czech co-production Fantastic Planet, directed by Rene Laloux, is one of many animated films from the 1970s that deals with adult and oft-disturbing subject matter in a unique, complex way.

Fantastic Planet takes place on the planet Ygam, inhabited by a race of blue humanoids called Draags. Draags keep human beings, called Oms (in French, literally homme or man), as pets, putting them in collars, dressing them in little costumes, and playing with them. But Draags also view wild Oms as dangerous, vicious creatures that must be eradicated. The film centers around one Om named Terr, a pet of Tiwa, the daughter of a senior Draag leader. Through an error in his collar, Terr begins to learn Draag language, culture, and planet knowledge from a pair of headphones that project Tiwa’s school lessons directly into his brain. Finally sick of being treated like an animal, Terr escapes, fleeing into the wilderness with Tiwa’s headphones. He meets up with a band of wild Oms to whom he offers Draag knowledge, but incurs danger both from the frightened Oms and the increasingly malevolent Draags.

Fantastic Planet’s sci-fi plot is somewhat simplistic, enhanced by the surreal imagery that creates a strange, unique culture and experience. The film ostensibly was meant to reflect the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, but it has greater resonance than that, dealing with issues of dehumanization, genocide, and the complex philosophy that puts one people (or species) above another. The Oms are ignorant because their overlords have kept them ignorant, but the Draags also have no apparent awareness that their pets are anything more than dumb animals. Terr provides a bridge, imparting knowledge that proves to be a danger to himself, to the Oms, and to the Draags.

Fantastic Planet is more about image than about plot, the creation of a fascinating, bizarre world that is about cinematic experience creating meaning. While firmly set in its Cold War mentality, it nevertheless succeeds in being universal, in saying something about the way humanity treats that which it does not understand, about belief in superiority and the dangers that creates for all creatures, Draags and Oms alike.

Don Verdean (2015)

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Apparently I am into films about faith-based charlatans. Unlike Elmer Gantry, however, Don Verdean is a comedy about what it means to believe, even in the face of such difficult things like “evidence” and “historical fact.” Don Verdean focuses on the attempts of a “Biblical archaeologist” to pass off artifacts discovered in Israel as proofs of the reality of the Bible. The bizarre thing about it? He really believes in what he’s selling.

Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) makes a questionable living as a self-titled Biblical archaeologist, traveling to Israel and unearthing artifacts based on a combination of Bible verses, historical knowledge, and his professed belief in God’s guidance. He meets with pastor Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), who wants Don’s help in bringing more people into his rapidly diminishing congregation. Don has the solution: he’s discovered Lot’s Wife on a cliff in the Holy Land, and has the statue shipped over from Israel with the help of his friend and local guide Boaz (Jemaine Clement). But Lazarus isn’t satisfied with just one piece of Biblical history, and Don promises to find an even more astounding artifact: the skull of Goliath. So off Don goes, with his faithful secretary Carol (Amy Ryan), to try and discover the last resting place of David’s nemesis. When it becomes clear that the Israeli government will not let Don dig where he wants to, the desperate archaeologist does something he’s never done before: he fakes it, digging up the grave of a boxer afflicted with gigantism to pass off as Goliath’s skull. But Boaz knows what he did, and Don is now in way over his head.

Don Verdean could have been a lot of things: a satire on the faithful, a parody of people stupid-or desperate-enough to believe in the reality of the Bible that they can be sucked in by obvious fakes and questionable historical practices. But while the film is certainly satirical, it does not fall into the trap of feeling contempt for those it satirizes. Don is a true believer – he really does think that he can find artifacts by using the Bible and that he’s receiving guidance from God. The Goliath skull scam is not for money, but a desperate move to help people maintain their faith by giving them something tangible to hold onto. As Boaz sucks him deeper into the vortex, trying to convince him to make money by scamming people, Don becomes legitimately distressed. This is not what he does, and not the meaning of his work.

Unfortunately Don Verdean sacrifices some of its thoughtfulness in the second half, relying instead on some cheap shots to draw out the humor of the situation. Initially an interesting character, Boaz falls quickly into the stereotype of the money-hungry Jew – that’s bad enough, even if you don’t add in the depiction of a Chinese businessman whose accent is hard to understand. The stereotyping rather takes away from Don Verdean‘s otherwise unique take on faith and charlatanism – while all the characters are stereotyped to a degree, the other shoe never really drops with Boaz, who becomes just a problematic stereotype rather than a well-rounded character. Other jokes, including a former Satanist turned evangelical pastor played by Will Forte, never fully come to fruition, their potential abandoned for a rather rote heist narrative at the end.

Yet there is still so much to like about Don Verdean. The film is surprisingly thoughtful when it comes to the nature of faith – does it matter if the salt pillar is just a salt pillar, or the skull is just a skull? If you believe it to be Lot’s Wife, or the skull of Goliath, if it makes a difference in your life and in your faith, then what does it matter if it’s historically verifiable or not? Don’s secretary Carol becomes the central pillar around which this film is built – her faith encouraged by Don’s questionable findings, her life made more meaningful by being with him. It doesn’t much matter whether the findings are true or not – their truth is in belief, and belief is sometimes all we have.

The Faculty (1998)

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The 90s were a time of some high quality horror movie…somethings. I hesitate to say parodies, because that conjures images of the Scary Movie franchise, so let us say horror movie metas. The first Scream film hit cinemas in 1996, bringing with it a simultaneous celebration and critique of the slasher subgenre, and of the movie brat culture spawned by a generation of fans who knew just a little too much about genre. In Scream’s wake came The Faculty, Robert Rodriguez’s delirious salute to alien invasion films that engages with sci-fi tropes in much the same that Scream did slashers.

The Faculty hits the ground running. We open on Herrington High School during football practice, where Coach Willis (Robert Patrick) loudly abuses his team and flips a table. That’s about all we get to know about the coach, because he’s immediately possessed by a weird alien lifeform. A bit of a bloodbath later, and the opening credits actually roll. The rest of the film hits first on all of the typical high school movie tropes before we return to the aliens: we meet the captain of the football team Stan (Shawn Hatosy), the clever geek Casey (Elijah Wood), the bad boy drug dealer Zeke (Josh Harnett), the bitchy head cheerleader Delilah (Jordana Brewster), the new girl Marybeth (Laura Harris), and the goth girl Stokes (Clea DuVall). As the film goes on, each trope is carefully subverted, fleshing the characters into existence outside of their generic markers. It’s a clever conceit in itself, but one that couldn’t be sustained without those aliens and some good body horror to back it up.

As more and more faculty members fall prey to the parasite, our small band of clichés must come together to defeat the alien menace. A good part of this is figuring out the rules by which the parasites operate, which is where Stokes comes in: a sci-fi geek, she knows everything from The Thing to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the books on which they are based. With her guidance and a bit of luck, the students navigate the changing school and try to suss out how to kill the aliens…preferably without killing everyone else in the process.

While the notion of rules is more thoroughly played out in ScreamThe Faculty is all that it sets out to be. There’s a healthy dose of body horror, indulged in with all the delicious glee that one expects from Rodriguez. The plot certainly borrows heavily from the films that it’s referencing, but that’s to be expected: if you go into The Faculty with the expectation that it will fail to fulfill generic expectations, you will be disappointed. The actors are all game for their roles, but the adults appear to be having a lot more fun than the young people. If you thought you didn’t need Robert Patrick and Piper Laurie as a tag team of malevolence, you were very wrong – they’re delightful. Bebe Neuwirth, Jon Stewart, and Selma Hayek all get in on the action, with Famke Janssen’s mousey English teacher finally letting go in a scene that probably most put-upon professors have dreamt of once in a while. The Faculty gleefully lets the teachers take revenge against bullying students, and then gives the students their chance as well.

While never quite rising to the heights of its meta-movie counterparts, The Faculty succeeds in its project to make an alien invasion film with a difference. It’s simply entertaining, an enjoyable diversion that hits all the right notes. I might not have finished it with the same sense of exhilaration that I did the Scream franchise but damn if it wasn’t fun getting there.

The Outside-In Man (Episode 3-22, February 1964).

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I am a staunch defender of John Steed, especially in these early seasons where he’s typically dismissed as manipulative or callous. In general, he’s neither manipulative nor callous, usually acting on what he believes are his best instincts, and keeping his partner (and others) out of immediate danger. Then there’s The Outside-In Man.

The Outside-In Man begins with Steed put in charge of security measures to protect visiting diplomat General Sharp (Philip Anthony), a former British soldier who defected to the enemy country of Abarain and proceeded to become a target for assassination. Now he’s back to do an arms deal with Britain and Steed, despite having been part of a team who fought Sharp’s forces back in the late 50s, has to protect him. Complications arise in the form of Mark Charters (James Maxwell), a recently released prisoner of war originally tasked with assassinating Sharp. He’s captured, tortured by Sharp’s men for years and then suddenly, inexplicably released back to Britain. Steed and his superior officer Quilpie (Ronald Radd) fear that Charters is going to try to complete the mission he failed at and finish off Sharp.

There are so many problems with The Outside-In Man that it’s difficult to decide where to begin. While the initial premise is intriguing, the plot soon gets lost in convolutions that include Steed going dark and refusing to speak with Cathy, Cathy tracking Charters across the English countryside, and the machinations of Sharp’s embassy. The whole thing culminates in a confusing, final act reveal that makes no sense with what has come before, and forces one to wonder if the entire British government are a pack of imbeciles.

Plot issues aside, The Outside-In Man loses points with me for the character of Mark Charters, a sneering, unsympathetic figure who spends most of his time making obscene passes at Quilpie’s secretary. Worse things come when Cathy appears to try and talk him out of assassinating Sharp – not because she cares about Sharp’s life, but because she doesn’t want to see Charters back in prison. Charters proceeds to first make fun of her and then threaten her, finally forcing her out of the room at gunpoint. Why Cathy cares what happens to this man is beyond me. Meanwhile, Steed is giving his own performance of manipulation and meanness, ignoring Cathy’s questions and trying to order her about while keeping her entirely in the dark. It’s one of the few times that I wonder why Cathy continued to stick it out with Steed.

There are points of interest in this mess, however. The scenes in Quilpie’s headquarters at a butcher’s are humorous, especially when Cathy is brought in. Her disdain for the secret organization that she nonetheless works for becomes evident, and I quite sympathize with her this time. But those moments are few and far between, and there are very few scenes with the typical Steed and Cathy banter that make this season otherwise so enjoyable.

The Outside-In Man does manage to evoke strong emotions – the only character I find halfway sympathetic is Cathy herself. Frankly, given the ending of this episode, I hope she locked Steed out of her apartment for a few days.

L’Assassin Habite Au 21 (The Murderer Lives At Number 21) (1942)

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French director Henri-Georges Clouzot rose to fame on the strength of films like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique: creepy, intense thrillers that immediately bring to mind Alfred Hitchcock rather than French art house. Clouzot’s filmography goes back a bit further, though, to his first feature film in 1942, the weird, funny, and slightly subversive L’Assassin habite au 21.

The film follows police detective Wenceslas “Wens” Vorobechik (Pierre Fresnay) and his would-be music star girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair) as they investigate a series of murders by the serial killer known only as Monsieur Durand, who leaves his business card at the scene of every death. There’s not much to go on, but Wens gets a break when a petty criminal stumbles upon a bunch of Monsieur Durand cards in the attic of the Mimosas, a boarding house run by Madame Point (Odette Talazac) at Number 21 Avenue Junot. Leaving Mila behind, Wens takes a room at the boarding house and proceeds to investigate each of his strange fellow tenants, many of them music hall performers on hard times.

L’Assassin habite au 21 has much in common with the British films of Alfred Hitchcock, relying as much on humor and comic characterizations as it does on thriller tropes. Wens is a dashing, acerbic hero, approaching his investigation almost as though it’s an amusing adventure instead of the search for a vicious killer. His suspects include a magician who keeps accidentally making things disappear, a former soldier with a violent temper and avowed respect for the killer, a failed novelist, a toymaker who makes Monsieur Durand dolls, a valet who does bird impressions, and a vampy nurse who cares for a blind former boxer. The characterizations are all loads of fun, as each suspect evinces some grotesqueries of their own that may or may not point the way to a disturbed psyche. Wens doesn’t let anything phase him, however, not even Mila, who regularly gets herself arrested in an effort to solve the case for herself. It’s a speedy, amusing little thriller, not high on scares but with rather tongue-in-cheek humor.

One of the most interesting elements of L’Assassin habite au 21 is its production circumstances. Made in 1942 in occupied France, it was the fourth script that Clouzot wrote for the Nazi-run production company Continental films. This is remarkable, given that the film includes numerous sly jabs at Nazi mentality, from characterizing one suspect as a fascist sympathizer with deep contempt for the “lesser” forms of humanity, to actually parodying a Nazi salute near the end. Clouzot would face some criticism for his apparent collaboration with the Nazis, but his films tend to mock Nazism from the inside out.

There’s really very little to complain about in L’assassin habite au 21, except that it could have been longer by ten or fifteen minutes and thus developed our characters more. It’s just an enjoyable whodunnit and it does exactly what it intends to do.

From Beyond (1986)

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It just isn’t Halloween without H.P. Lovecraft. Director Stuart Gordon made his mark with the grossly brilliant Re-Animator, so he got the gang back together for From Beyond, a similarly-toned adaptation of Lovecraft that also succeeds in doing its own, disgusting thing.

From Beyond takes Lovecraft’s short story of the same name and runs with it. Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) creates a machine called the Resonator, meant to stimulate the pineal gland and allow people within the machine’s range to experience a new sixth sense. What it does, however, is reveal that the world around us is populated by weird, nasty beings cut off from the human world by a thin veil that the Resonator pierces. Pretorius is murdered and his assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) driven almost mad with terror. But it doesn’t end there: Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) thinks that she can help Tillinghast by forcing him to relive his experience with the Resonator. Katherine, Tillinghast, and police officer Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) hole up in Pretorius’s old house and start the Resonator again. I think you can imagine what happens from there.

From Beyond is less tongue-in-cheek than Re-Animator; where the latter film created humor by going totally over the top, From Beyond is actually quite subdued in the early sections of the film, establishing a tone more realistic than its sister film. Unfortunately, this means that the latter sections, when the body horror really starts getting good, come off as more serious and the film itself more exploitative. Why we need an extended sequence with Barbara Crampton in bondage gear I do not know, but it’s there and it feels more like the director working out his own kinks than a viable addition to the structure of the movie.

That being said, From Beyond is probably one of the best straight adaptations of Lovecraft I’ve seen. The film develops Lovecraft’s underlying despair, the sense that there is a world beyond our own the very glimpse of which could drive people mad. As with Lovecraft, there is no chance for a happy ending here; just the hope that we might be able to close off our minds from the horror.

I wouldn’t suggest From Beyond to anyone not well-versed in Lovecraft lore (itself an acquired taste). But for any Lovecraft fan, it’s quite an experience. Just be sure to pop in your disc of Re-Animator afterwards.

Housebound (2014)

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I’m not sure what’s in the water over there around New Zealand and Australia, but they are producing some unique horror films right now. The Australian feature The Babadook was notable for its female-centric narrative punctuated by some truly terrifying sequences; now another film about haunted women comes from the neighboring country of New Zealand in the form of Housebound. 

Housebound focuses on Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly), a very inept felon captured while trying to rob an ATM. This is not her first offense, however, so the court sentences her to a fate worse than prison: house arrest at her mother (Rima Te Wiata) Miriam’s home. With a sensor fixed to her ankle so that she can’t leave the grounds without setting off an alarm, Kylie has to settle in to life with her mother and stepfather Graham (Ross Harper). At first Kylie is just sullen about the whole ordeal, but soon she learns that her mother persists in a long-standing belief that the house is haunted. When Kylie herself begins experiencing some rather paranormal phenomena, she enlists the help of Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the security contractor who monitors her sensor and just so happens to be an amateur ghost hunter. As the pair begin to discover some sinister secrets about the house, Kylie becomes more convinced that it’s not all in her mind.

Housebound is that perfect blend of horror and comedy that makes films like Scream or Gremlins so enjoyable. The first half of the film is a legitimate haunted house story, complete with weird noises, looming figures, flashing lights, and strange events. The second half focuses more on Amos and Kylie’s attempts to discover the reason behind the haunting, leading them further afield – and Kylie into greater danger. But the whole film is underscored with wry humor: Kylie is a sarcastic, sullen young woman, her mother bright and bubbly and largely at peace with the fact that her house is plagued by a ghost. Most importantly, however, the plot all hangs together, right from the very beginning. The denouement is always a challenge for haunting films; there’s only so many way to resolve the story. Housebound actually gives a satisfying, believable conclusion to a very weird tale, bending genre tropes without ever breaking its own rules. The fact that this is all done by a first-time director and a relatively unknown cast just makes that much more surprising and exciting.

As an inveterate lover of haunted house movies, I can recommend Housebound with gusto. My one complaint is that there’s at least one twist that I did manage to predict, but that did nothing to damage my enjoyment of the film. It’s an entertaining ride from start to finish, rarely missing a beat, and bringing some proper scares along with it.