Jodorowsky’s Dune (Crackle)
This is one of my favorite documentaries of recent years, and probably one of my favorite movie documentaries of all time. Directed by Frank Pavich, Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014) very simply tells the story of how the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky nearly came to make the film version of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi cult novel Dune. Jodorowsky is known to hardcore cineastes as the man behind crazy, visually luxuriant 1970s midnight movies like El Topo and The Holy Mountain. He’s also, at age 85 during the time of filming this documentary, a brilliant speaker and storyteller. In the 1970s, Jodorowsky went so far as to write a script, create a book filled with designs and drawings, and even cast the movie before it became impossible to find funding; the movie would have been too expensive and too risky, even in the risk-friendly 1970s.
Artists like H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud were hired, as were people like Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger for the cast; Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis, who had appeared as a child in El Topo, was set to play Paul. Each step of the process contains an extraordinary, unbelievable story. Eventually, the book and script were passed around to so many people, that ideas began to leak into other movies, everything from Star Wars to The Matrix. Eventually, David Lynch made Dune in 1984, and it was an expensive flop. Instead, this documentary may be the true work of art. Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz is among the interviewees, as well as Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (Vudu)
Norwegian director Andre Ovredal made one of the best “found-footage” movies with Trollhunter, about a documentary crew that stumbles upon a real-life troll hunter as well as real-life giant trolls. He follows it up with this terrific, more traditional horror movie, taking place mainly on a single set, a morgue, and involving only a handful of characters, one of them dead. One of the best horror movies of 2016, The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) stars Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as Tommy and Austin Tilden, father-and-son morticians. Austin is about to knock off for the night, headed to the movies with his girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), when a mysterious murder victim comes in. Austin decides to stay to help his dad.
It’s not long before strange, spooky things begin to happen. There are impossible wounds on the body, such as broken ankles with no visible exterior damage, and then the lights begin to flicker and a vicious storm begins brewing. Ovredal establishes the space beautifully, with only a creaky, wobbly elevator and a heavy storm door providing access in or out of the sprawling, underground chamber. But the movie gets its drive from the fascinating family relationship onscreen, with two top-notch performances fleshing it out. Extra credit goes to actress Olwen Kelly, who plays the titular “Jane Doe.” She manages to convey an eerie, striking presence throughout without ever uttering a word or moving a muscle.
Ms. 45 (Shudder)
Filmmaker Abel Ferrara came out of the New York grindhouse era, starting in porn before making the grisly, arty The Driller Killer (1979). Fortunately, he graduated to Ms. 45 (1981), a truly vicious, but more artistically ambitious grindhouse film. Zoe Lund—credited as Zoe Tamerlis—plays Thana, a mute seamstress. In the film’s first 10 minutes she is raped, twice, the first time in an alleyway by a mugger, and a second time in her apartment by a burglar. The second time, she kills her attacker, and dismembers his body. She is understandably traumatized, and she soon kills another man, thinking he is a threat. From there, she becomes a vengeance machine, getting dressed up, putting on makeup, and finally, a nun’s habit, to lure ever-increasingly horrible men to their deaths.
In one key sequence, she spots a man that has gone to visit his girlfriend at her work, an ice cream parlor. He leaves, and Thana follows, but for the first time, this target looks like a nice guy that doesn’t need to die. Ferrara cleverly plays with viewer expectations, challenging perceptions, getting audiences to thrill along with brutal slayings, and then realizing it. From there, Ferrara takes things into the home stretch with a phantasmagoric sequence at a Halloween party, one of the most truly astonishing things ever shown on rundown 42nd Street movie screens. The very striking Ms. Lund became a cult star, and went on to write the screenplay for Ferrara’s later Bad Lieutenant (1992), but died at age 37 in 1999 after a lifetime of regular heroin and cocaine use. The movie was alternately released as Angel of Vengeance.
Dressed to Kill (FilmStruck)
FilmStruck just recently added this title, which was also released on a gorgeous Criterion Blu-ray, thereby elevating its original status as a cheap, sordid bit of cinematic sex and violence to an artistic masterpiece. Riffing on bits of Vertigo and Psycho, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) becomes its own psychotic ode to voyeurism and desperation. It begins with Angie Dickinson, as Kate Miller, taking a shower. (The body double De Palma used for the soapy, nude close-ups inspired him to make another movie, 1984’s Body Double.) Her husband is an uninspired lover, so she goes to a museum, follows a mysterious man from painting to painting and goes home with him. Returning later to retrieve her left-behind wedding ring, she’s stabbed and killed.
Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) teams up with the call-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) who found the body, to unmask the murderer. They spy on the office of psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), believing that the killer is one of his patients. After much spying and surveilling, our detectives discover that nothing is as it seems. De Palma may have been inspired by Hitchcock, but his level of obsession, his representations of physical lust, violence, and release, and his astounding use of the widescreen frame and split-screens within, are way beyond things the master of suspense would have ever conceived of. It’s a film worth thrilling to, as well as a film worth studying.