Island of Death (1976)

Island of Death (1976)

director Nico Mastorakis
viewed: 09/20/2015

After you watch the documentary on Video Nasties (2010), it’s time to watch a “video nasty” (or two.)  A video nasty (or two) from the notorious list of 72 films cited by the Department of Public Prosecution.

I wasn’t too familiar with Island of Death, though I had already added it to my Fandor queue (as Fandor specializes potently in their Cult section).  It’s a Greek exploitation film.  Who knew such a thing existed?

Apparently inspired by the commercial success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), writer/director/producer Nico Mastorakis cranks out a film of full-on perversities, a litany of bad behavior, and joie de vivre for creative murder.  A young, nice-looking couple find their way to the Greek isle of Mykonos and start wreaking havoc.  Sex in a phone booth while talking to the man’s mother, then a morning rape and murder of a small goat.  Both of the lovers seduce others, both kill or torture and show great glee, and take lots of photos on their vacation.

Robert Behling plays the libidinous murderer who cracks out with judgmental, pious snipes at everyone else, seemingly barely repressing his violence.  The very cute Jane Lyle is less of a driver but a very willing collaborator with her partner, just as cruel, if a little less driven by bloodlust.  They kill a homosexual couple that had befriended them, an “older” woman, a lesbian heroin addict, a house painter, a detective on their trail, anybody who looks at them funny.  And when the tables are turned, and Lyle is attacked in her bathtub by two hippie satyrs, Behling uses a speargun and a toilet to dispatch their attackers.

The film contrasts beautiful shots of the couple frolicking through the grass and flowers, strolling the beaches of the bright blue Aegean Sea, with these acts of total decadence and cruelty.  Is it the ugly Americans?  Behling sounds American but Lyle is clearly British.  Who are these two and what do they represent?

Well, the film turns on its final sequence.  When the two are finally suspected of wrongdoing, they flee to the countryside, to a rural shepherd who lives in a hut.  He takes them in, feeds, them and lets them sleep in the hay.

***Spoilers ahead***

And then he rapes them, first the girl, then the guy, who clicks photos of the girl’s rape.  The shepherd beats and sodomizes the guy, while Lyle watches in bemused revenge, eventually, letting the shepherd have his way.  The shepherd then throws the man into a pile of quicklime, trapping him.  While he calls out for help, wary of rain igniting a chemical change that will mean his ugly death, the girl ignores him.  Let’s him die.

Oh yes, there is the plot twist that turns out that these two are siblings.

There is a wildness to the a-morality in the film, an adherence to a sense of flouting social constructs and slashing taboos.  The couple, handsome and pretty as they are, are ugly monsters as well, probably insane, completely without conscience or care, lusting in decadent viciousness.  But what does it all mean?  The man delusionally envisions Mykonos as edenic, as the people as good and pure, and then he is taken down by a goodly, sleazy man of the earth, perhaps more animal than man?

I don’t know.  This movie is quite shocking in its way, not so much in what it throws in your face, as much as what it seems to be saying.  Or is it saying anything coherent?  It’s pretty bananas.

Attenberg (2010)

Attenberg (2010) movie poster

director Athina Rachel Tsangari
viewed: 07/28/2012

Attenberg, a film from Greek director/producer Athina Rachel Tsangari, is cut from a simliar cloth to the films of colleague and countryman, Yorgos Lanthimos.  Tsangari produced both Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011), Lanthimos’s surrealist visions of present day Greece.  Dogtooth utilized the same cinematographer, Thimios Bakatatakis, and furthermore, Lanthimos appears in Attenberg.

They share much in aesthetics and discourse, as well as in tonality.  Attenberg differs in that it addresses itself much more plainly and clearly to Greece itself, whereas Lanthimos’s films take place in a more generalized society.

All of the films focus on people living outside of society, either socially inept or ignorant, people who crave connections but whose only access to human relationships are tweaked and bizarre.  In Attenberg, 23-year old Marina (Ariane Labed), has one friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), with whom she shares a strange, close but unusual relationship.  They practice kissing, singing, spitting, walking/dancing in rhythm throughout the film as if their relationship is a codified practice, not an emotional connection.  Marina is very close to her dying father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) but similarly has awkward communications with him, most comfortable when she and he watch animal documentaries and act like the creatures of the films of David Attenborough.  Spyros is a former architect, who wonders aloud if his profession is really all about building ruins.

The acting style is deadpan, broken away from naturalism, further suggesting the discomfort of relationships and human connections.  For all of Marina’s trying, she seems to make progress, starting a relationship with an engineer she meets (Lanthimos), though she really doesn’t know what she is doing.

I realized at some point, while watching the film, that it would probably strike others as particularly weird. Marina and Bella’s marching/dancing/routines, which intercut throughout the story, are really never outwardly explained.  It’s quite bizarre in its own way.  And quite comical.  Though it’s executed with utmost seriousness.

Attenberg, like Lanthimos’s films, I think are pretty interesting.  They are disconcerting, dealing with weird, complex emotions about dysfunctional human interactions.  They craft surreal world views in a recognizable space.  And despite their disquieting qualities, invoke humor and are also aesthetically pleasing.  These three films could easily be shown together, in any order, in any pairing and evoke similar sensibilities.  Strange, evocative, oddness.

Alps (2011)

Alps (2011) movie poster

director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 04/24/2012 at Kabuki Sundance Cinemas, SF, CA

Alps is the latest film from Greek film maker/writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos.  It played as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, so even without knowing much about it, I was very interested in seeing it.  His previous film, Dogtooth (2009), was one of the two best films that I saw on DVD last year, and I’ve been reading about the rise of Greek cinema and its strangely surreal nature.

Alps is not unlike Dogtooth in that it also deals with people and reality and does so in a darkly comic, somewhat disturbing tone.  Whereas in Dogtooth, a father kept his adult children hemmed in on a property away from the rest of the world, a world that he portrayed with various falsities and lies to keep them at home, Alps is about people who strive to participate in the lives of others, playing roles of the recently departed.  As part of a very formal yet probably unofficial troupe of four, each of the people attempt to fill roles in lives in which people have died.  It’s part service and therapy, but it’s also a codependent fulfillment for the actors, particularly the woman played by Aggeliki Papoulia, who lose sight of themselves and their own worlds.

There is a plethora of absurdity and flatly delivered interactions.   At one point the young gymnast of the group attempts to mimic Prince, but does so very shabbily, not being recognizable by her peers.   The men tell her that Prince is not dead.  She then argues that he is dead (you’re only supposed to imitate the dead.)  Another sliver of a break from an understanding of reality.

The best scene, perhaps, is after Paloulia plays through a dialogue with a man in a lighting store, going over an argument, reeling lines as if from a script in flat, unemotional specificity.  When the argument ends, they retreat to the basement and engage in a similarly stilted scene of sex.  The man tells her, as he administers oral sex to her, to say something like “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like heaven.”  But she gets it wrong and says, “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like paradise.”  And he stops and corrects her.  Even for the people who are reliving moments with a stand-in for a lost loved one, the scenes are denuded of emotionality.  They are much more like going through the motions, but needing things to be a specific way.

My friend who I saw it with didn’t care for the film, finding it disturbing.  The film has a subtle undertone of violence, from an early threat from the coach to the gymnast, the brutally bloodied body of the tennis-player teenager after her car crash, and a brutal smack in the face with a club towards the end.  More than physical violence, though, the film plays in the area of discomfort and unease, with characters whose motivations seem to emanate from a different psychology.  Would a family who’ve just lost a young daughter accept the offer of her nurse to play her role for a while?  There is definitely a perverse quality in those who hunt like ambulance-chasing lawyers for opportunities to craft their art.

As the leader of the team anoints the group “Alps” because the Alps could stand in for any mountain, but no other mountain to stand in for the Alps.  He of course takes Mont Blanc, the largest of the Alps for himself.  I was brought to mind oddly of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) wherein a group of renegade young people pretend to be mentally retarded in some strange sociological or performance piece.  While The Idiots never discuss what they do, there is this weird parallel of a troupe of people operating on society’s fringe in an ambiguous manner for equally ambiguous reasons.

Me, I actually liked the film.  Maybe not quite as much as Dogtooth, but then again maybe so.


Dogtooth (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 03/15/11

Dogtooth is a strange, affecting Greek film about a family that takes isolationism to bizarre extremes.  The father and mother have kept their three children locked inside their remote compound their entire lives.  They are now adults, but have been taught that leaving the compound (before having lost one’s dogtooth, “canine”) will result in sudden death.  And that cats are the killers.  And that airplanes are actually toys that occasionally fall in the yard.

They have isolated their children through the fears that they have taught them, the depiction of the world that they have painted, a mixture of lies and fabrications, including telling them that the names of some objects are different from normal usage.  They are utterly controlled by their understanding of the world.  And the father perpetuates this to keep them close and under control, much like the dog that he is having trained.  The trainer tells him, “Do you want a dog or do you want a friend?”

There is great absurdity in the world of Dogtooth, but its critique of paternalism is keen.  While most people do not teach their children such blatant lies, each parent does teach their children about the world in their own terms.  It also struck me regarding the Saussure-ian idea of how culture and ideology begin to be taught at the moment that language is learned.  The control of the mind is a structure of society, and so the father in Dogtooth uses language as well as lies to exact control over his adult children.

The director has suggested that the idea burgeoned from a thought of a future society where protecting one’s family required taking things to extreme.  This seems to indicate that the mother and father’s bizarre control over their children arises from a desire to protect and keep them together.  Perhaps that is what gives the film its odd sensibility that doesn’t utterly condemn their actions, but rather exposes the impossibility of controlling the minds and lives of other people, no matter how “out there” their world is.

The film has a outré quality, not like any one director or film that I can think of.  The visual style is very clean and straightforward, almost bland and banal, in contrast to the strange ways that the characters act.  It’s also not without discomfort, distress and displeasure, as it focuses on this strange psychological abuse, incest, and occasional violence.  It’s hardly a laugh riot, though much of the contrasts of the characters’ odd behavior make for some pretty funny scenes.

Really, I have to say that this is one of the best films that I’ve seen this year.  Unique in vision and surprising and weird, this is a truly interesting film.