May is my birthday month, and I have decided to treat myself in fine style with a month composed of some of my favorite kinds of movies: the worst ones. Naturally, this will include a cornucopia of films that endear me like few others, as well as some fascinatingly bad films I’d like to take on in writing, and it will no doubt incorporate a few “first timers” that I have heard so much about I cannot but run from any longer. All of which serves no primary goal other than me indulging in the kind of film that doesn’t usually find enough of a place in my blog (where I tend to house my “respectable” opinions, and not my swelling love for awful cinema). Really, it is just happy birthday to me, and I cannot wait.
Most of these films, although not all, will be of the genre-fried, “old school” awful variety, the sort of horrid, putrescent midnight cinema you hear about in your nightmares, and thus the normal Midnight Screenings postings will be suspended for the month, since not a single one of these films I have planned for this feature would qualify over there, so you are getting more than the safe limit for the month anyway. Not all of them will be exploitation films or proper B-movies, but we’ve always taken a broad, all-inclusive definition of “Midnight” around here, and we aren’t about to stop now.
In addition, there will be two scores, each between one and five, for each review. The first will be akin to my normal scoring, rating in terms of artistic merit and skill (with 0 being the most inept), and the second will relate to its value as deliciously bad entertainment (with 5 being the ideal score for any bad movie connoisseur).
First up, a duo of stupendously silly films notable because they come from the mind of John Boorman, and as I hope to reveal with these two reviews, that is a most special mind indeed.
Ladies and gentlemen, our show…
It is always a great present when a film announces its totality in the first scene, as Zardoz does. A floating head clad in vague blanket garb anonymously moves around the screen, all hand-drawn goateed and self-serious, and we are informed in one of the most wonderfully supercilious soliloquies ever to grace the silver screen that God with a capital-G is in show business, that we are all muckish, pointless creatures still serving our base-whims and reptilian brains, and that the world and the human species is nothing but the playground for immortals who sit above us and who would call us subjects. Soon after ward, the infamous “the gun is good, the penis is evil” monologue, delivered by a floating, seemingly constipated rock head in the sky, graces the screen, and the insanity continues. But that opening soliloquy, head arbitrarily moving around an empty black screen as if looking for a resting place, tells us all we need to know about Zardoz before Zardoz even knows what to do with itself. It tells us, rather simply, that we are in for a stupendously kitschy and zany roller-coaster fun-house of galvanized nonsense and passionately inept storytelling. That is what it tells us, and the film does not disappoint.
It is a good, humble thing the film does when it begins with such an obvious statement of its lunacy, for what we can tell about it going in does not inform of us this fact at all. Zardoz is a John Boorman film, which gives us absolutely no idea of whether it is a good film or a bad film. It merely tells us that, whether it is good or bad, it will follow that quality to the grave. It will be, in other words, stupendously, un-movably good or indiscriminately, deliciously bad. Ladies and gentleman, John Boorman does not waste time in the nebulous regions of “competence” or “decency”. Among all the young directors of the American New Wave (although Boorman himself was British), he was by far one of the most arcane, and there was an untempered personal energy to all of his films. A John Boorman joint promised passion, but little else. Whether that passion was for near-genius craft or unexplainable lunacy was almost beside the point. All of his films should absolutely be seen, but absolutely not for the same reasons.
It is altogether amazing that he wasn’t the straw that broke the American New Wave’s back; more than even Coppola or Cimino, to name two directors who did end up imploding the New Wave in the early ’80s, he seemed primed to release something stupendous, and then to be given an insurmountable sum of money to follow-up his era-defining release. At which point, he seemed primed, with no one controlling him or watching over his shoulder, to use that money to release one of the most inescapably weird, monomaniacal, indulgently obtuse films of the decade, crashing and burning and bringing the producer’s money, and any hope for a blockbuster success from a challenging young director ever again, down with it
Yet, that didn’t happen, although he did, in all honesty, give us the film that should have served this end had it been made on a much higher budget and released, say, seven years later (it happened to be released when the New Wave was still picking up steam, rather than when it was on the way out in the late 1970s). That film, one of the most infamous of all film releases in the history of the medium, is…
And what a film it proves to be. Within mere minutes, we are introduced to a pony-tailed Sean Connery, clad in only stripper boots, a red crotch-sling, and some of the most tarnished dignity in the history of film land. As if that wasn’t enough, we then gallantly follow Connery walking into the mouth of that aforementioned stone head-being, passing by a few dozen naked people in plastic bags, walking through a cave for some reason, and then, still having spoken no dialogue, ending up in some sort of day-glo farm of the future. Actually, the first fifteen minutes of Zardoz contain just about no dialogue whatsoever (and as we will soon learn, “no dialogue” is both a great strength and a great crutch for the film when we consider how wonderfully awful, and wonderfully endearing, the dialogue Boorman did cook up later-on is). To wit, Connery’s first words are, for instance, “food…meat!” Which is, to say the least, a remarkably confident gesture on Boorman’s part.
“Confident”, by the way, is the buzz-word with Zardoz. It is awful as a work of storytelling and style, sure, but it is never less than thoroughly confident in the way it is bad. This, mind you, is what makes bad cinema “good bad cinema”, and Zardoz is the epitome of good, bad cinema. Confidence, that special sense of the director, the writer, and the producer that everything in their film is absolutely the sum total of what they wanted it to be, and that they are bringing the heavens down upon the masses, is what worthwhile bad cinema is all about. It just so happens that all three of those roles – director, writer, and producer – for Zardoz were filled by Boorman himself, one of the most confident of all directors in the 1970s, and one of the most special.
It is he who makes Zardoz such a wonderful train-wreck of supreme confidence and sheer ineptitude. It is confident and inept in the way it asks Sean Connery to sell dialogue about the wonders of the vortex whilst hiding his mouth below one of the finest ’70s staches you might imagine. It is confident and inept in the way it constructs a universe that can best be described as “sexy, erotic, and cryptic Planet of the Apes without the monkeys but with lots of chest hair so that you might still think the monkeys are there anyway”. It is confident and inept in the way it mimics the pure idea of “sci-fi in the ’70s” like no other film. It is confident and inept in the way it cavorts back and forth between huge, wandering patches of silence and minutes-long exposition dumps unloaded without context. It is confident and inept in the way it melds the book-bound boy’s club adventure sci-fi of the early 1900s with some of the most unaware art cinema of the early 1970s. It is confident and inept in the way it wishes to be both Stanley Kubrick and William Castle and does not remotely have the slightest understanding that you can not find two more incompatible influences if you spent a life searching for them. It is confident and inept in the way it felt a good idea for a centerpiece scene would be watching a number of deeply under-sexualized people stand around Sean Connery as they show him images of naked women and watch to see if he grows an erection. Still, it is even more confident and inept when it implies that he is able to spontaneously control his erections at will.
It is such a confused film; at some point, it is possible to presume that the world of Zardoz is separated into the poor Brutals and the wealthy Eternals, and that the Brutals make food for the Eternals. It is possible to presume that a flying stone head named Zardoz beckons certain Brutal Exterminators to kill other Brutals for money, perhaps to keep the Brutals working against one another so they do not rise up and tackle the Eternals. It is possible to presume that Connery is one of those Exterminators, and that he uses the head to return to the Eternal-land of Vortex, where he discovers something is wrong in the Vortex and that their capacity for sex and reproduction is malnourished. All of this is possible to presume, but the film doesn’t make it easy. It does however make it fun to guess, one of the finest pleasures of any bad-movie connoisseur, and a great joy for anyone who appreciates genuine artistic vision completely abused and misunderstood and thrown out on the screen without the slightest good sense. What wonderfully idiosyncratic set-design, costume-design, cinematography, and in some cases direction, all for such an idiotic, rampagingly silly purpose. The tag-line “Beyond 1984, Beyond 2001, Beyond Love, Beyond Death” says everything you need to know. Everything about the film’s ambitions, its hopes, its dreams, and its ego. Zardoz is not simply beyond any influence or any theme; it is beyond everything.
So how good is it really?: 1.5/5 (there are films that fail the language of basic film vocabulary more, but it is still pretty bad)
But how “good” is it?: 5/5 (hypnotically bad; this is what we who seek out bad cinema mean when we fall in love for all the wrong reasons)