I think I've outdone myself this week: a hauntingly beautiful Japanese horror movie, a Burt Reynolds movie so despised it's never been seen on home video before, and the most WTF movie I've found yet on Netflix.
If you’re in the mood for an unusually haunting ghost story: Retribution (2006, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s elegant horror tale opens with a man drowning a woman in a puddle of mud. The very next scene kicks off with an earthquake, as though Kurosawa is warning us of the structural instability to come. The plot, such as it exists, involves police detective Noboru Yoshioka (Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho), his investigation of a series of murders in which the victims are found drowned in salt water and the troubling fact that evidence in one of the murders increasingly points to him as the responsible party.
As Noboru encounters other suspects, they all confess an overwhelming desire to “wipe everything out.” This tendency towards obliteration speaks to a drifting alienation that pops up quite a lot in Kurosawa’s work, here manifested as the consuming terror of guilt. Kurosawa directs this beautifully — static shots trap his characters within the borders of the frame, and a recurring motif of reflection (mirrors, pools of water, the like) serves to explicate the burgeoning paranoia about having done something unremembered. Instead of going for shock after shock, he gives us flashes of things seen vaguely in the background or in quick pans. This not only ties into the narrative (the mystery hinges on something briefly glimpsed 15 years prior) but feeds the mounting dread. And when the ghost finally does present itself, it moves with a slow, curiously flowing sort of hesitation (shades of Kurosawa’s great Pulse) – the idea being that it’s the horrific inevitability of your fate that’s the true point of terror, not any sort of rumble-shock jump tactics. That’s an idea I can fully support. (Besides, setting up that manner of world makes the rare jump-scare all the more effective – there’s a terrific and weirdly funny one near film’s end.) (Retribution expires from Instant on April 13th.)
If you’re in the mood for more Burt Reynolds after last week but want something less violent: At Long Last Love (1975, Peter Bogdanovich)
Who knew a dud could be so delightful? Peter Bogdanovich’s ode to Cole Porter and the musicals of the ‘30s was pilloried upon release in 1975 like few films ever are, and the savage reception has been enough for Fox to keep it off home video in any format. Seriously – this has Burt Reynolds, Cybil Shepard and Madeline Kahn hoofin’ away, and it’s never seen the light of day since its disastrous release. Yet here it is on Netflix Instant, waiting for some brave soul to take a flyer on it and see that it’s really rather charming in its throwback way.
At the time, Roger Ebert wrote, "[Bogdanovich is] not giving us a tribute to the great musicals... he's trying to give us another one." There's truth in this - At Long Last Love lacks any sort of cynicism or deconstructive impulse. Bogdanovich is working to recapture the magic of a bygone genre that gave him untold joy through the years, and damn if his film doesn't get there on energy and gumption. The light, airy tone helps greatly, and if Burt Reynolds isn't the most accomplished singer around it's still okay - he's hugely charismatic and adept enough with the film's whiplash-paced screwball dialogue that his tolerable warble doesn't hurt the proceedings. Of all the so-called disasters that are out there, this giddy, fizzy winner is the one most deserving of rediscovery. (At Long Last Love expires from Instant on April 30th.)
If you’re in the mood for a total what-the-fuck experience: The Manitou (1978, William Girdler)
The Manitou is one of the daffiest films ever to come complete with a respectable cast and solid production values. Because of this, it’s weirdly captivating . But why offer a proper review of it when I know that would be useless? Nothing I can say about the film can make it sound as enticing as a simple plot description. You see, The Manitou is about a tumor on Susan Strasberg’s back. This unusually fast-growing tumor turns out to have a fetus inside it; the fetus is the vessel of reincarnation for an ancient, malicious American Indian shaman named Misquemacus. Strasberg’s ex-boyfriend, played by Tony Curtis, is a phony psychic who at her behest decides to take on this inexplicable force of evil. He holds a séance and then consults a muttering anthropologist (Burgess Meredith, who between this and The Sentinel was clearly the go-to guy for bizarre mumbly cameos in batshit ‘70s horror flicks), who directs him to a practicing modern-day shaman named John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara). Meanwhile, Miscquemacus takes over the hospital ward in which Strasberg is residing, using his powerful magic to royally fuck up everyone within his range of effect. There’s snow and giant lizards and chicks getting frozen. Then, the whole thing climaxes as Curtis and Ansara use the power of ‘70s computers channeled through Strasberg to fight a magic battle in the eleventeenth dimension until Misquemacas gets the point and slinks off to be reborn again in however many years.
I mean, really. I could talk about the increasing insanity of the film, which starts out relatively straight and proceeds inexorably to go full-tilt nutters. I could express admiration for the actors, especially Curtis, who does his damnedest to treat this material with a manner of gravity. But let’s be honest. If this was a video store and I handed you this VHS, what would most pique your interest: “Tony Curtis is really good in this,” or, “This movie totally ends with a topless chick shooting lasers in space at an evil Indian dwarf”? I thought so. (The Manitou expires from Instant on May 1st.)
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk. He's been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you've never heard of before. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that's the best compliment he's ever received.