Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crypt of Dark Secrets (1976)

Crypt of Dark Secrets' director/writer/producer Jack Weis is one of my personal favourites among regional US independent filmmakers - may the appropriate Godhood have mercy on me - but even I have to say that Crypt (by the way not a movie containing any crypts, unless "crypt" is now the word used to describe one awkwardly fake gravestone), unlike Weis's masterpiece Mardi Gras Massacre, is predominantly a masterpiece of awkwardness. But a masterpiece is a masterpiece, so there's that.

To call the film's plot loose would be pretending it to be quite a bit tighter than it actually is. As it stands, a Korea and Vietnam War vet (as the film's characters never tire to explain, he was a Ranger) named Ted Watkins (Ronald Tanet) whose particular talents include never moving a facial muscle, showing off his chubby chest, and keeping his money in a bread box, moves into a house on a haunted island in the Louisiana Bayous. Said haunting is an immortal woman named Damballa (Maureen Ridley). Damballa likes to spend her time jazz-dancing (when in doubt naked), swimming a lot, awkwardly levitating, and turning into a snake.

From particularly awkward flashbacks and awkward cop exposition we learn she's an Aztec (from an Aztec culture that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual Aztec culture, of course), spending a few thousand years on the island until a man will appear there on whom she will practice naked jazz-dancing and to turn him into someone moving between life and death as herself, which will certainly have some sort of effect on, um, something. Anyhow, did you know the Aztecs invented voodoo?

There are also some local yokels trying to kill Ted for his money after they learned of his bread-boxing habits in a bank so excellent, its owner asks a new customer where he stores his money right in front of other customers, but that only ends in them being voodoo-ed to death by a voodoo priest servant of Damballa's who for some reason first sends them looking for (and finding) the treasure of Jean Lafitte. And to an inexplicable scene of Damballa nakedly and somewhat obscenely jazz-dancing over a sarcophagus.

Honestly, I have no idea what I just watched, but I do know I now have a better opinion of jazz-dancing.

But let's talk about Crypt's awkwardness a little, or rather, let me explain my two favourite bits of awkwardness from the movie (not including all the awkwardness I already mentioned, for repeating that would be rather awkward). Firstly, there are various forms of incredibly awkward acting, reaching from the "aw shucks I was born in the swamp" mock-naturalist acting of the yokels, to the Joe Friday stiffness of the cops who won't ever stop expositing things they've either already told us or we've already seen (or both), the Jim Caviezel facial paralysation stylings of Ted, to Maureen Ridley's inexplicably slow and pause-heavy line delivery that suggests she's reading her lines from some helpful cards but alas can't read very well. It's all very inspiring in a "everyone can act" kind of way.

Secondly, there's the dance choreography for Ridley (and sometimes for what we must call her voodoo ballet). Now, it's pretty clear Ridley knows much more about shaking, shimmying and writhing than she does about acting, and in that regard, being the kind of guy I am, I find it difficult to criticize her. Yet all of her dance sequences are so, well, awkwardly and weirdly choreographed it's difficult to find them as erotic as they are probably supposed to be. Perhaps Weis was going for a Jess Franco effect here, where the bizarreness of a given dance is often meant to emphasise and enhance its fetishist aspects. The dancing in Weis's film mostly had me staring at the screen with my patented "what the hell" face I usually reserve for French gore movies from the 80s and Weird Fu films from Taiwan.

It's obviously all enough to make a boy like me ponder if "awkward" and "awesome" aren't interchangeable, and that's before I have even mentioned the excellent (though awkwardly placed) swamp photography of the film that provides the always important local colour, or explained that I felt amused, befuddled and confused for the film's whole awkward seventy minutes.

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