Gregory Joseph is a librarian and film-obsessive who lives in Western Massachusetts. He blogs about animation and Japanese music at http://waxmask.blogspot.com, posts images at http://torturevillage.tumblr.com/, and can be found on Twitter as @Gregory_Joseph and on Letterboxd at http://letterboxd.com/waxmask/. He also edits an old-fashioned ‘zine called Samurai Dreams: Fringe Film and VHS Culture which is sort of dormant but will hopefully return at some point.
An expanded version of this list can be found at:
01. Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), Shôhei Imamura
An arduous production and a financial disaster, Shôhei Imamura's notorious Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo is an overwhelming, even humbling film in sheer scope and ambition. Scripted by Imamura and frequent collaborator Keiji Hasebe, "The Profound Desire of the Gods" chronicles Tokyo salaryman engineer Kariya's intrusion upon the lives of the inbred, disgraced Futori clan, on the isolated, superstitious island of Kurage.
To say that the film's landscape photography is gorgeous is an understatement; Imamura and DP Masao Tochizawa capture the space and beauty of Kurage with staggering, wide vista frames and blistering natural light. There is currently a stunning HD print of the film available to watch on Criterion's Hulu channel, which hopefully signals a Region-1 Blu-Ray release of the film for 2013.
02. Fascination (1979), Jean Rollin
I spent 2012 becoming acquainted with the fantastic, transfixing, narcotic, terrifying, genuinely dream-like films of French master Jean Rollin, films often featuring dazed, depersonalized characters enacting bizarre scenes of ritual and transference in ostentatious isolated country villas. In Fascination, escaped thief Mark (Jean-Pierre Lemaire) hides out in a home occupied by the vampiric, game-playing Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elizabeth (Franca Maï), with predictably horrific results. While I had seen Night of the Hunted and Grapes of Death (which remains my favorite Rollin film), Kino's Redemption lines of Blu-Rays has allowed me to survey Rollin's career more completely via these excellent releases. Fascination is the best of the bunch for the year, and the best film I saw in 2012 aside from Profound Desires of the Gods.
03. The Evictors (1979), Charles B. Pierce
Charles B. Pierce's films are legitimately nightmarish: feverish, amoral, distancing, familiar but somehow "wrong". The strategies and habits of classical Hollywood cinema are present, only perverted and submerged. This one ditches the faux-documentary style of his best-known work but is equally presentational. While Pierce doesn't want anything from the viewer, The Evictors demands careful attention and concentration. Seeing leads Jessica Harper, Michael Parks and Vic Morrow work in various configurations here is a privilege.
04. Violent Stories (1985), Daniel González Dueñas, Diego López Rivera, Carlos García
Agraz, Gerardo Pardo and Víctor Saca
Realized by five separate directors but relatively uniform in style and tone, writer Pedro F. Miret's Historias Violentas is a wholly successful full-spectrum examination of violence both physical and otherwise. The five segments here expand and escalate spatially, beginning with a scene of two men in a narrow hallway and ending with frenzied, collaborative destruction and murder in a crowded village square. While surrealistic, most of the segments here are rooted in the mundane world, and only "Reflejos" features fantastic elements.
Historias Violentas is nightmarish in the true sense; characters find themselves in hopeless and desperate situations, their psychological well-being--if not their lives--at themercy of irrational, mysterious or anonymous forces. One memorable, reflexive scenario sees compliant theater-goers rounded up after the movie one-by-one for an arcane, sinister line of inquiry. Miret's mastery of pace and thematic development, combined with his interest in occult scenario, recalls Nigel Kneale's productions for the BBC and especially his ITV series Beasts.
05. Paris is Burning (1990), Jennie Livingston
Jennie Livingston's swift, spirited 1990 documentary Paris is Burning has been discovered by a lot of folks in the past year. The film's subject, NYC's still extant “Ball” culture- presentational, performative drag costume-competitions organized by gay, trans and gender non-conforming Blacks and Latinos--has had a kind of aesthetic revival of late, referenced by and sampled in contemporary dance, rap and r&b music and in the fashion world. Livingston's film joins the ranks of great New York documentaries, and shines a light on an oppressed, marginalized cultural force that is nevertheless absolutely vital. My personal favorite scene explains the Ball category "Executive Realness", where contestants dress in high-end business wear, often stolen from upscale department stores.
Paris is Burning is a sobering film as well, not shying away from the violence--both physical and otherwise--that is cold hard reality for its subjects, many turning tricks to survive. The tragic murder of a central subject (which happened during the course of filming) brings into focus the poisonous prejudice and hatred weighing on so many folks in America who are rarely represented in cinema.
06. Retribution (1987), Guy Magar
Sharing much in common with The Hidden, a film also released in 1987, Retribution shamelessly synthesizes De Palma, Mann and Friedkin for its own demented purposes, unapologetic in both its easy competency and its juvenile depravity. Imagine Robocop 2 or Street Trash unmoderated by deliberate comedy; imagine a film that never grants respite or remove from grubby violence or amoral predation. Director Guy Magar seeks only to match and surpass his own cinematic perversity.
Retribution's premise is flatly absurd and won't suffer credibility: a malicious psychic gangster is gunned down in the street, only to gift his untethered consciousness to manic- depressive painter George Miller. Dennis Lipscomb plays George as a bumbling weirdo, fearlessly presenting a truly embarrassing, pathetic protagonist for the audience to pity rather than cheer for.
The film's escalation of occult phenomena is fully nonsensical; there are no governing, restricting universal rules here. The murders are shot with abandon: Magar cranks the already-mean, hysterical tone of the film into feverish levels of sustained hysteria. The film is sickeningly lit, all greens and pinks and violets, from subtle putrid halos to solid alien-abduction beams. The reliance on neon here is downright vulgar: in one scene, George and Suzanne Snyder's character Angel even visit a gallery for neon-sign art. The print rescue on the recent Code Red DVD release is superb but a Blu-Ray would be essential.
07. Plot of Fear (1976), Paolo Cavara
Members of an informal gang of idle-rich sexual game-players are being murdered one- by-one. Presumably these are revenge-killings, after the accidental death of a young participant pushed too far. Chief Inspector Gaspare Lomenzo (Michele Placido) discovers the killer's signature: pages from an old child's book left at each crime scene, illustrations from the folktale "Shock-headed Peter".
The narrative is a bit ropey at times but Plot of Fear is loaded with evenly-dispersed sequences of brilliance. A beautifully grim, multiplicitous ending offers a fantastic walking two-hander between Placido and Eli Wallach that is as compelling as any quiet sequence from the best of the genre, which turns into a thrilling, desperate chase scene that is unceremoniously snuffed.
08. Level Five (1997), Chris Marker
Chris Marker's final feature-length film is a scripted narrative with a fictional central character and premise, additionally incorporating documentary footage, primary source interviews and narration from Marker himself. A prophetic film, Level Five is an early meditation upon communications technology and the internet. Frequent Marker collaborator Catherine Belkhodja plays Laura, a documentarian and game-designer, in the early stages of creating an educational PC-game about the Battle of Okinawa, the Allied assault on the Ryukyu Islands of Japan during the late stages of World War II. Laura scans Level Five's version of the internet, "OWL" ("Optional World Link"), a kind of primitive VR terminal interface, for primary and secondary research materials. The film is largely composed of documentary footage and interviews with survivors, academics and the filmmaker Nagisa Oshima (whom also provides documentary footage), broken only by Laura's lonely, hypnotic, contemplative personal diary entries addressed to Marker.
Autocritical and ahead of its time, Level Five is a stunning if difficult to parse film. Conceptual, talky and collaged from media of varying format and quality, as a film it resembles some of Godard's work, yet feels somehow more traditionally cinematic. Unquestionably Level Five asks of its viewer questions which are difficult to process and to answer, and as an examination of both technological peril and human trauma it stands as an affecting, uncompromised experiment.
on Vimeo Here:
09. Boardinghouse (1982), John Wintergate
A baffling admixture of William Castle-gimmick, illegible text scrawl, Casio noise, O- mind camerawork, random bees-buzzing sound design and strobe-edits, Boardinghouse is one of the finest counter-intuitive "real people" SOV horror films of the 1980s. A simple slasher set-up somehow also allows for voodoo, telekinesis, possession, power tools and ghost curses, accounting for the film's relatively lengthy run-time.
Despite all of its excess narrative, it is fully possible to process Boardinghouse as abstract sound and image only. The constant, hyper-exploitative co-ed nudity and brutal spaghetti gore effects are disturbing rather than titillating, embarrassing rather than exciting. Stylistically the film is close to porn or TV-news re-enactment, with both its rippling, fuzzing art-Brut sound design and harsh video-photography.
10. Shredder Orpheus (1990), Robert McGinley
Action International Pictures remains the most unfairly unheralded DTV distributor of some of the best and weirdest action movies of the 80s and 90s. Director, writer and star Robert McGinley's Shredder Orpheus may be A.I.P.'s most ambitious release. McGinley is Orpheus, of Greek myth, here recast as post-apocalyptic skate-punk messiah. While the film essentially retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, McGinley dresses it up with ideas and images borrowed from Street Trash, Repo Man, Videodrome and Brian Trenchard-Smith's Dead-End Drive In.
Orpheus, his wife Eurydice and legions of other hopeless punks and skaters inhabit "The Grey Zone", a shanty town of shipping crates and scrap metal. Orpheus sings for The Shredders, the Zone's favorite band. While there is a narrative through-line here, McGinley is just as concerned with detailing his universe, taking breaks for junkyard percussion jams and half-pipe exhibitions. The film's narrative engine starts when Eurydice is kidnapped by talent scouts for "The Ray", a mind-control television show broadcast from the "Euthanasia Broadcasting Network". Orpheus rides a mythical skateboard through Hell's parking garage to save her, but not before jamming a set of digital noise on a proto-tablet, an explosive protest remaking him a Zone hero. McGinley has directed little else, which is a shame.
11. The Survivor (1981), David Hemmings
Produced by exploitation overlord Antony Ginnane, David Hemmings' 1981 film The Survivor is a calculated yet genuinely compelling, unbelievably drawn-out thriller that is more interested in interrogating the wracked psyches of its characters than it is in delivering any forms of genre convention. Robert Powell plays Keller, the pilot and sole survivor of a brutal plane wreck, an event that he has no memory of. Jenny Agutter plays occultist Hobbs, a witness to the crash supernaturally drawn to its aftermath. Watching these two outstanding performers work is a privilege, as they gradually stitch together the crash's true cause and meaning. The film also features a brief but memorable turn from Joseph Cotten--his last.
Hemmings frames the Australian countryside wide, in breathtaking painterly compositions. The Survivor is deliberately paced, and at only 100 minutes feels twice as long. Flawed, yet casts a certain spell.
12. Baptism of Blood (1996), Kenichi Yoshihara
Horror manga legend Kazuo Umezu's work, with its precarious combination of folklore, elegant plotting and moments of genuine shock, presents filmmakers with a unique challenge. This is why most Umezu adaptations disregard the essential qualities of his cartooning in favor of more conventional horror tropes. Kenichi Yoshihara, in adapting Umezu's Senrei, chooses to simultaneously amp up the gore and mitigate the truly horrific elements of Umezu's original story.
Umezu's protagonists are usually powerless children, often at the mercy of exploiters and predators--the corruption of innocence by a cruel, amoral adult world. In Senrei, pubescent Sakura (here played by Rie Imamura) is besieged by her vain, former movie- star mother Matsuko (Risa Akikawa). Disgusted by her aged body and a strange moss- like lesion on her face, Matsuko pays a mad doctor (Tatsuya Go) to devise a brain- transplant machine, so that she may switch bodies with the young Sakura. The eventual brain-transplanting scene is lengthy and disgusting, featuring kitchen-sink Gigeresque effects and harsh cinematography.
While the film doesn't succeed in an unqualified, confident manner, it does contain isolated moments of achievement, and features a brilliant performance from Imamura in a kind of dual role. While Yoshihara never does translate his source material's tone, he does manage to capture Umezu's line in some of his framing and shot composition, as utilitarian as it is. The elements of Baptism of Blood that feel the least like Senrei-- the noirish double-crossing, the way the third-act twist is essentially telegraphed as an extended Psycho reference--are often its greatest assets. While Baptism of Blood is in many ways unsatisfying, its aesthetic rawness and adaptive compromises animate it with at least some perverse life-force.
13. Future Schlock (1984), Chris Kiely and Barry Peak
Australians and theater-owners-turned-filmmakers Barry Peak and Chris Kiely produced- -working in varying, likely interchangeable roles--a string of bizarre, farcical films, beginning with 1984's Future Schlock. Featuring the operational tagline "Ordinary people get theirs!", Future Schlock is a loosely-threaded narrative film incorporating faux- documentary footage and sketch-comedy, relying heavily upon its constant narration to unify its disparate attentions. The filmmaking here is decidedly DIY, with Peak and Kiely proudly foregrounding their low-budget aesthetic.
A genuinely radical satirical attack on normative mainstream values and middle-class culture, Future Schlock envisions a literal class war, a world divided between racist, fascist "subbies", whom mindlessly adhere to a literal rulebook, "The Standard Set of Middle Class Guidelines", and destitute, marginalized street-punks, living in a destroyed anarchist wasteland, sedated by tranquilizers in their water supply. The Robin Hoods of the "ghetto", outlaw art-prankster saboteurs "Cisco Kid" and "Sancho Panza", are the secret identities of Future Schlock's main characters, synth-punk performance artists Sarah (Maryanne Fahey) and Bear (Michael Bishop). Bear and Sarah's performances and their missions into the suburbs are the film's best moments, as they wreak havoc at dinner parties, police stations and fake press conferences, dressed in drab subbie disguises. As they're being terrorized in a wasteland club, an unfortunate couple cry, "It's not a crime to be middle-class!" Bear responds, "Around here it is!"
14. Street Wars (1992), Jamaa Fanaka
Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary trilogy of films remain some of he most vital--and bizarre- -films of the American exploitation era. 1992's Street Wars is Fanaka's follow-up to Penitentiary III, and remains his most recent feature. While Street Wars differentiates itself from Fanaka's earlier work in many ways, it is nevertheless his familiar admixture of cartoonish sex and violence, non-diagetic music videos, surreal humor and hand- wringing righteous sermonizing and clichéd visual metaphors.
Street Wars follows Boyz n the Hood by only a year, and is essentially a more genre- minded riff on that film. Leading a cast of largely obscure performers, Alan Wone plays Exeter grad and West Point-bound golden child "Sugar Pop", initially merely determined to survive a violent summer living with his crack-kingpin brother Frank (Bryan O'Dell). When Frank is slain in a revenge-killing, Pop immediately and confidently assumes his brother's leadership role, vowing to "go legit" within a year, dismantling the city's crack infrastructure with the aid of machine gun-strapped ultra-light recreational aircraft, which one character dubs his "ghetto air-force".
The most compelling element of Street Wars is the tension between Fanaka's desire to entertain a mainstream audience and his sincere, heartfelt need to create politically engaged, meaningful work. These twin impulses allow for both shoot-outs involving rocket launchers and a vat of acid, and a cameo from Khalid Muhammad as himself.
15. Super Xuxa versus Satan (1988), Anna Penido and David Sonnenschein
Brazilian personality Xuxa Meneghel’s career as a pop star and children’s TV host is still going strong after some 30 years. Xuxa plays a superhero version of herself in several feature-length films, beginning with 1988’s Super Xuxa Contra o Baixo Astral--literally translated as “Super Xuxa against the Down Mood”, but sometimes labeled “Super Xuxa vs. Satan”.
Busy riding around on her motorbike, teaching the children of Brazil the power of positive thinking and white-washing graffiti, Xuxa underestimates the power of the evil Baixo Astral (“Down Mood”), living in squalor with his two rat-like minions underground. Recognizing Xuxa as a force for good, Down Mood kidnaps her talking puppet dog Xuxo—who in one scene chastises his fleas for being lazy—forcing Xuxa to journey into hell, a quest allowing for many vignettes and music videos. These lavish musical numbers are undoubtedly the film’s raison d’être and what makes the film so fun, and Xuxa such a winning personality. The film’s greatest music-video scene also closes the second act: Xuxa—and Xixa, the “Gypsy caterpillar”—meet a talking new age crystal and its psychedelic flower friends, inspiring the film’s catchiest song, “Alto Astral” (http://youtu.be/_GxJ_A0iW5w).
Super Xuxa, in addition to being merely surreal, is fairly horrific: a demon accidentally chops his finger into a bowl of stew, a beached, netted pink porpoise waits for its lucky eyeballs to be harvested by poachers, and Xuxa is in one scene tied in bondage ropes and asked to produce a “sadomasochism Visa”. Such moments of darkness both clash with and compliment Xuxa’s cartoonish utopianism, and the numerous bright, relentlessly upbeat pop-music numbers that punctuate the otherwise ultra-thin narrative.