10/3/2018 – Hungary: Taxidermia (2006)
Directed by György Pálfi
For our final mini-theme of the month, we have reached location. It was the main theme of 2015 and thus far, forty-five nations have been represented. We have hit almost every major cinema by this point and as a result, quite a few of these discussions are going to be a bit sparse. Thankfully, today sees one of the more prominent still remaining in the Hungarian film industry. There cinema dates back to the silent film era in 1901 with A táncz
The 50-minute-long Austro-Hungarian anthology Three Tales of Terror from 1912 is the earliest horror title I could find from the region though little information on it exists besides the sparse IMDB page and an off-hand mention in an unrelated text. World War One destroyed much of the industry as directors including Michael Curtiz (who directed perhaps the first feature length movie in the country with 1912’s Az Utolsó bohém as well as co-directed the first feature length horror title with 1919’s Alaraune) and Alexander Korda. The post-war era did however see the release of the most notable Hungarian horror film from last century as 1921 brought the first appearance of Count Dracula in Dracula’s Death (Drakula halála), predating even Nosferatu (by a year). Sadly, it’s now a lost film and horror films as a whole essentially died in the intervening years, the horror-comedy Kísértetek vonata (which does exist in untranslated form) being the sole exception.
Any attempt at a rebuilt film industry was crushed by encroach of fascist groups with anti-Semitism especially taking a toll on it. It took until the rise of socialism in 1948 for the industry to rebound and while there aren’t a whole lot of prominent films from the next decade Zoltán Fábri’s Merry-Go-Round an exception, it’s still considered a golden age for many. After a brief period of political upheaval in the late 1950s, Hungary entered an era that would get them their most sustained international recognition. The country received Oscar nominations in 1968 for The Boys of Paul Street, 1974 for Cats’ Play, 1978 for Hungarians, 1980 for Confidence, 1981 for Mephisto (which won), 1983 for Job’s Revolt, 1985 for Colonel Redl, and 1988 for Hanussen while also releasing such notable titles as The Corporal and Others (1965), The Red and the White (1967), the cult banned comedy The Witness (1969), Love (1971), The Fifth Seal (1976), and Time Stands Still (1982).
After the fall of socialism, the films of Hungary have largely been inundated by foreign productions using it as a spot for cheap filming. It’s also seen the rise of its most acclaimed homegrown director in Béla Tarr who, among other films, has directed 1994’s Sátántangó, 2000’s Werckmeister Harmonies (both Sight and Sound 250 films), and 2011’s The Turin Horse the last two with Ágnes Hranitzky. The country also delivered the acclaimed Kontroll in 2003 and brought home its second Oscar with Son of Saul in 2015, getting nominated last year for the fantastic On Body and Soul. Horror however has largely been left behind as discounting the foreign productions traditional horror has been virtually non-existent in the country. Besides today’s movie, the only other notable title is the acclaimed 2014 dog film White God.
Attempting to describe Taxidermia‘s plot succinctly is an attempt in futility as the film never quite establishes a central premise. The three segments of the film move through time, centering on a different person each time, but the thematic ties between them are loose. The first section is set at a military outpost, with a man who is forced to fetch hot water for baths, chop lumber, and other menial tasks for his cruel lieutenant in the brutal winters of World War II. There’s just something not right with him though and he slips into surreal fantasies while tending to his tasks. Some of these are visually quite impressive, but there’s also an extremely graphic sex scene where he fucks a slaughtered pig and which it takes the form of various women (including the lieutenant’s wife) and which we see the penetration (an amplification of an earlier explicit scene where he screws the wooden wall of a barn, with cloth protection of course). SPOILERS1
The next section follows a competitive eater SPOILERS2 who we get to watch them graphically, intentionally vomit afterward, eat in increasingly disgusting ways including out of a trough. The final section follows the child of his and his fellow eating competitor wife who grows up to be a taxidermist and who unlike his very large parents, is a small, pale, and frail figure. Considering the title, you’d almost expect that this was just one really long prelude to get to this point, but the dad, who is now SPOILERS3, feels more or less like a joke at this point.
The taxidermist was in need of a far greater focus before SPOILERS4. The film feels more or less an excuse to introduce the grotesque set pieces and I’m okay with that. They are handled with a sense of humor which keeps it from feeling like exploitation titles and along with the diversity of boundary breaking as opposed to gore makes it more freak show than modern splatter film. It can feel like it is trying too hard to offend, but after films like later Wrong Turn sequels that seem afraid to actually show anything, I appreciate the boldness.
For those who didn’t click the spoilers, there’s going to be a large contingent who are understandably put off by Taxidermia, but for those who can stand (or ideally find compelling) transgressive content in their films (I’ve seen far worse for what it’s worth), it’s a unique and satirical surrealist horror title that at the very least is going to keep you wanting to see where it goes next.
Bonus Episode #7 – A – 1980s: Scarecrows (1988)
Directed by William Wesley
Despite having “scare” right there in the name, scarecrows aren’t exactly the most intimidating bad guys for a movie. It’s hard to make them seem threatening when they are filled straw, a material that is so weak that its used first in a parable to indicate how easy it is to blow over. You certainly aren’t going to do yourselves any favors though if you then face them off against a group of heavily armed commandos, one having a bandolier of giant explosive rounds. Kind of defuses a lot of the threat right there.
A commando unit makes off with $3.5 million in a heist and escapes in a cargo plane, taking pilot and his young daughter hostage. After one of them bails out with the money into a cornfield, the others pursue after him. Instead they are forced to deal with something greater as it’s the scarecrows who come to life to protect their farm from more than just crows. Much of the action takes place in a single farmhouse as the unit holds up there. As the scarecrows brutally murder them one by one, they start to turn them one by one into zombies, albeit ones stuffed full of straw and cash.
It just seems like one idea too many adding the zombies on top of scarecrows, but there’s an interesting subidea that I’m not sure if it was part of the supernatural or genuine madness, SPOILERS5. Early on, a scarecrow stab someone to death in slow motion, which annoyed me since besides being ridiculous, there’s so many better weapons to use on a farm or more creative ways to kill as a scarecrow. The film picks up a bit later in this regard, but not by much.
Instead, the film mostly works by knowing to keep things quick (the film is over in under 80 minutes) and fast moving as well as having some good-looking night shots. Peter Deming from such things as the Evil Dead II, Mulholland Drive, The Cabin in the Woods, the Twin Peaks revival handles the job effectively here and complementing Norman Cabrera’s strong makeup work. Nothing special or memorable, but it goes down quick enough that the result hardly matters.
Next up: And the ’30s said “Let there be sound” and there was sound. Werewolf of London will be the movie representative of decade.