Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Weirdest Movies of the 1970s

With the rise of the counter-culture and experimental film in the 1950s and 1960s, there were plenty of bizarre movies, but in the1970s, we start to see a plethora of films that descend into absolute insanity.

It's impossible to talk about weird movies of this era without bringing up "The King of Bad Taste" himself, John Waters. He eventually settled down and became more mainstream, but his films from the 70s were absolutely nuts. The most well-known is easily the transgressive classic Pink Flamingos from 1972, which starred the drag queen known as Divine and was made for only $10,000.

Pink Flamingos featured over the top acting that was far from naturalistic and was full of extremely offensive content, such as a man with a sausage tied to his penis, Divine giving unsimulated oral sex to an actor that portrays her son, and the also unsimulated ending which consisted of her eating actual dog poop. This is the only non-pornographic work I'm aware of that featured an actor going to such lengths.

There's plenty of other stuff that's just weird without being gross or disturbing, like the so-called egg lady and characters licking each other's feet. Waters' film was so far out there that it was banned in Australia as well as parts of Canada and Norway.

There have been imitators, but no one has made a film quite like Pink Flamingos since. Along with a couple other films I'll mention, it was crucial in the popularity of the midnight movie phenomenon that formed in the 1970s, where theaters started playing cult films late at night.

Waters' second most famous movie of the 70s was Female Trouble, also starring Divine and many other cast members from Pink Flamingos. It doesn't quite reach the depths of depravity of that film, but it's still very odd and includes a scene where two characters have sex and are both played by Divine, one female, and one male.

It wasn't just low budget movies that were strange in the 1970s, but expensive, mainstream films as well. The most obvious example is the self-indulgent science fiction film Zardoz, from acclaimed director John Boorman, who had already garnered an Oscar nomination for directing Deliverance.

Zardoz lets you know right from the start how weird it's going to be. After an intro featuring a disembodied human face on a black background, the first scene has a giant floating stone head announcing the "gun is good" and the "penis is evil". Then a bunch of guns spill out of its mouth. Boorman thought this scene would make it easier for audiences to understand, but he later admitted that this didn't quite work.

Zardoz starred Sean Connery, who was a huge name at the time having just come off portraying James Bond multiple times. He spends the film in a ridiculous outfit that consists of thigh-high boots and red shorts that resemble a diaper.

This film had a decently sized budget at over $1.5 million and barely made that back at the box office. It unsurprisingly didn't get a good critical reception and has gotten somewhat of a cult following over the years.

One of the strangest minds out there is surrealist Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky and in 1973 he produced his magnum opus, The Holy Mountain. The production alone was bizarre as Jodorowsky and wife went a whole week without sleeping before shooting began and had the cast live together and sleep no more than four hours a night. He also used hallucinogens like LSD and supposedly had the cast take psilocybin mushrooms during a scene.

The Holy Mountain is brimming with religious references and occult imagery like tarot cards, as well as brutal violence. There's a room painted in vivid rainbow stripes, an ice sculpture that looks like a penis, and a room full of testicles in jars.

It all climaxes in an iconic fourth wall breaking ending. The Holy Mountain was far from the first film to break the fourth wall, but did so in a unique and highly effective way.

A film that needs to be mentioned here is David Lynch's 1977 feature debut Eraserhead. Shot in black and white, it focuses way more on atmosphere and mood than a logical narrative, as would be common throughout Lynch's work.

What passes for a plot in Eraserhead centers on a couple giving birth to a horrific-looking creature in place of a normal baby and like a lot of the other events in the film, no attempt is made by the filmmakers to explain this.

Eraserhead's score is also quite unusual. Instead of traditional music, it's a haunting, industrial soundscape that uses ambient noise as opposed to melody.

At the time, Lynch's film befuddled many critics, but over the decades, it has become one of the most influential movies ever made.

Any discussion like this of course has to touch on Japanese film, and one of the craziest is definitely House from 1977. It's often considered a part of the horror genre, but it defies easy categorization and was called "indescribable" by Criterion.

The first half or so is relatively normal, but the second half where the main characters reach the haunted house is where the film delves into insanity, despite its generic title.

A few of the strange occurrences include a piano that eats people, a dancing skeleton, and a disembodied head that flies around. House features tons of different practical effects, like green screen, matte paintings, and double exposure.

Another from Japan was the 1974 film Pastoral: To Die in the Country, sometimes known as Hide and Seek and directed by Shūji Terayama. It's metafictional like The Holy Mountain, but to a greater extent, as the beginning of the movie is revealed to be a film within a film about a third of the way through when we see the modern mundane world in black and white.

One more odd Japanese film that avoids traditional narrative structure from that year is Himiko, based on the ancient Japanese queen of the same name. It too has a fourth wall breaking moment at the end when pulls out from the forest and reveals a contemporary city.

Possibly the most controversial Japanese film of this era is Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, from 1976. Like Pink Flamingos, it had unsimulated sex scenes, which had to be blurred or reframed when it was shown in Japan due to censorship laws. About a third of the film had to be edited in some way to make it suitable for Japanese audiences.

It was filmed in Japan, but had to be edited in France because the laws there weren't as strict. The full version of In the Realm of the Senses is still banned in some countries to this day, including its country of origin. Oshima was even put on trial for obscenity for a book with stills from the film but was eventually acquitted. Based on a true story and set in the 1930s, the film features sexual strangulation and a penis being severed. It may sound like this was just meant to shock, but it's actually an artistic, thoughtful film.

The horror genre has always been a showcase for the outlandish, and Blood Freak from 1972 is a perfect example. Its completely absurd story is about a Vietnam veteran who eats turkey meat that was experimented on with chemicals and transforms into a freakish monster with a giant turkey head. He smoked marijuana beforehand and now has an urge for the blood of drug addicts.

Confusingly, it's a rated X gore film that's also religious anti-drug propaganda. I'd assume the overlap between fans of violent horror and those wanting a Christian movie is basically nil, so I have no idea who the filmmakers thought this would appeal to. Blood Freak is low budget and quite terrible, with incredibly wooden acting, poor lighting, and very fake looking effects.

Finally, we come to Sweet Movie, a 1974 film from director Dušan Makavejev. It's the only one here I'd actually recommend avoiding, mainly due to an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable scene where a grown woman seduces a boy. This is just one of many awkward and disgusting moments, with some involving bodily fluids that almost reach Pink Flamingos levels.

Other films I'll briefly mention include Pier Pasolini's Salo, I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse from Fernando Arrabal, the work of Luis Bunuel like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

I also decided not to discuss what I consider more purely experimental films as I have a separate series covering those.

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