Genre filmmaking and auteurship seemingly have nothing to do with each other. Genre suggests both story and studio constraints, while auteurship implies individuality and freedom. But when the two are mashed together, there can be inexplicable, surreal results. Two perfect examples of this unlikely combination are found with the low-budget American horror classic Phantasm (1979), as well as the Japanese yakuza gangster film Branded to Kill (1967).
Phantasm was Don Coscarelli’s breakout film. Over the years the writer and director has cranked out several fascinatingly good/bad flicks, including The Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep. Many of his films are well-known, but his name is not. In Phantasm, Coscarelli mixes haunted-house mumbo jumbo with an adolescent coming-of-age tale infused with a fairly honest depiction of late ’70s suburban life involving muscle cars and beer. Then there is the proto gore (and occasional raunch), with dead bodies reanimated as killer dwarves.
It presents an impressively delirious vision. The film always feels low-budget, but brief moments are reminiscent of a Stanley Kubrick film. It seems wrong to suggest, but Phantasm actually captures a peculiar sense of starkness not seen in many films. As the story unfolds, the story really unfolds. The ending helps make sense of the film while also throwing on more layers of confusion. I can’t say it’s the best film out there, but it arrests your attention just enough that you have to keep watching.
Unlike Phantasm, where the director was most likely trying to break into the industry, Branded to Kill’s director, Seijun Suzuki, was doing everything possible to get blacklisted from the studio system, a goal he eventually acheived. Branded to Kill was supposed to be a Japanese genre film about yakuza gangsters, but it quickly turned surreal, like a jazz riff that never returns to the melody. The lead character is the third-ranked killer who becomes aroused with the smell of boiling rice. This information should be enough to let you know Branded to Kill doesn’t take itself very seriously. Yet, because of its nonsensical editing style, you have to pay attention in an attempt to try and make sense of it. Eventually, you have to relent and simply marvel at its style, which includes amazing black and white cinematography.
Cine File is a random reference guide to help explore the vast catalog of films available on Netflix instant viewing, with special emphasis on the interesting, the unusual, and the ones that got left behind.
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