Strange Sounds: Popcorn Edition

As enthusiasts of unconventional music, we all know that this isn’t the only art form that loves to make detours into the far-out regions of the bizarre and unusual. Throughout cinematic history, celebrated and unsung filmmakers alike have left behind an immense cache of films that distinguished themselves from mainstream movie culture. While some veered too far off into abstraction during post-production, others had failed to provide enough cinematic substance or entertainment to make an impression, even by cult-film standards.

Whether they are future hits waiting to be discovered or justifiably destined for the graveyard, the following films listed all share the fact that an extraordinary soundtrack accompanies their existence. Thanks to a hardcore cult following and the possibility to track down every bit of information on the World Wide Web, these films along with their scores have found themselves a new generation of audience and with that, another chance to inspire, delight, baffle or, well, be ridiculed.

Included are a bubblegum-induced dystopian detective story, some kinetic Japanese body horror, a German absurd expressionist Fernsehspiel, a cabbage-stabbing sound technicians’ nightmare, Nazi surfer gangs, trippy Soviet sci-fi animation for kids and a rather bad experience in a haunted house. Read on as we take a look behind the curtains of a videotheque’s forgotten freaky cult section, and marvel at the existence of these peculiar sights and sounds.

 

Wolf Gremm & Edgar Froese – Kamikaze (1989 – 1982)

One could consider this a neon-lit pop culture reimagination of the dystopian masterpiece Alphaville. In this 80s retro vision of the future, Germany is the strongest economic force in the world in which a totalitarian government rules over a decedent and apathetic society. An unknown resistance has surfaced, triggering bomb attacks that threaten to weaken the power framework. When disruptions are beginning to boil over, a detective is brought in to investigate the source of the terrorist threat.

In his final casting role before his death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder portrays the stereotypical film noir detective as a cynical, world-weary, chain-smoking heavy drinker; which is rather ironic, considering Fassbinder was in fact mirroring his real life, and living as this caricature simply boosted his fame. Throughout the entire movie, Fassbinder dons a tacky leopard skin tailored suit; and if that’s not ridiculous enough, he has a matching car interior and gun grip for good measure. This type of styling is extended to almost the entire cast: from the background extras to the porn stars and cross-dressing assassins. Everything looks as though the panels of an 80s French pulp sci-fi comic book have sprung to life.

This forgotten love-it-or-hate-it film is accompanied by a synth score by Tangerine Dream head honcho Edgar Froese. Able to stand on its own as a regular Froese album release, it made random appearances in the background, adding a more dynamic energy to the slow pacing scenes. This is experimental German synthesizer music like the ones we know from a decade ago, but also contemporary enough to be considered new wave.

“Blue Panther” is a great track to play at fancy art exhibition openings or as an opening track for a mixtape exploring obscure music. Mysterious synthesized whistles surround the air of an open field in the Wild West, accompanying the travels of a lonesome cowboy. A guitar immersed in analogue effects is strummed in a flamenco kind of way, leading us to believe that a passionate dancer lives within him.

The score adds a surreal “flamenco-esque” vibe to the whole. Just for fun, try playing this piece right next to Grimes’ hit single “Oblivion”. Can you hear the similarities? I wonder if Claire is aware of the existence of this record.

Shin´ya Tsukamoto & Chu Ishikawa – Tetsuo Trilogy (1989 – 2009)

Flesh, blood and scrap metal – the next evolutionary step that is forced upon a shy and timid “salary man”, the nameless protagonist in Shinya Sukamoto’s Tetsuo Trilogy. An unknown force turns a regular guy-next-door into an unstoppable metal berserker. Repressed traumatic experiences of these predestined pitiful souls trigger a horrible metamorphosis of the host’s physical being. Controlled and set in motion by a crazed metal shaman, a deranged scientist or military leaders-gone-mad, this is perhaps a pessimistic vision of the future augmentation between man and technology, seen through the eyes of a citizen from this guilt-ridden society.

Japan seems to have an unusual fascination with the phenomenon of technological extension to the human body, as reflected in Japanese folklore, pop culture and the country’s current scientific achievements. The films have gained a lot of cult following in underground cinema and are considered to be the most powerful representations of the cyber punk phenomenon, though leaning more towards the punk aspect of it rather then the cyber component.

The three parts share the same narrative, but differ in their pacing, editing, mood and naturally, in the cinematic technologies connected to their respective Zeitgeist.

Audio fiend Chu Ishiwaka has crafted the perfect score to this kinetic hell ride. Sony Japan released a triple CD set in 2010 containing all three soundtracks plus previously unheard material.

The Iron Man (1989) is the first instalment, a perverse yet beautiful 16mm black-and-white roller coaster. This is industrial in its purest, most foul form; with pounding rhythms produced by heavy machinery, huge pipes that are simultaneous being banged on concrete floors, teeth-grinding noises screamed out by scrap metal creatures and backed by a maniacal Oni demon’s nauseating keyboard play.

Part two is the tale of Body Hammer (1992). This movie is a more ambitious take on storytelling, which robs the Tetsuo lore of a bit of mysticism, which then progresses into a rather silly outcome. The pacing and edit frenzy is turned down a few notches through its attempt at storytelling, resulting in a more atmospheric and subtle score that relies more on tacky video game keyboard play and 90s music software. Still, there are a couple of neat compositions to find here.

The third and final act is called The Bullet Man (2009). On the whole, this sounds like a cleaned-up and domesticated rehash of the first score. Here and there, a couple of electronic beats and orchestrated elements are introduced. Ishikawa also brought in long-time fan Trent Reznor to contribute to the theme song. Still, it could easily be the third wheel of this unstoppable, rampaging, bullet-spewing, annihilating, hateful, raging, horrendous, demonic…cough…cough…let me catch my breath…war-machine behemoth.

Der Plan – Die Letzte Rache (1982)

Since the early days, the artsy electronic trio from Düsseldorf birthed an absurd symbiosis of their crafted visual world and their quirky sound compositions. One of its members is Pyrolator, a musicians’ musician in Germany’s electronic scene. For the 1982 sort-of musical, they produced a great portion of the cardboard cut-out props for the scenery, drawing heavily from early German surrealistic expressionists and paying tribute to the imaginary world of Dr. Caligary. Die Letzte Rache is a parodist’s take on German allegory and this one is about the quest of the Welt-Kenner (which more or less translates to an omniscient expert of life and the world) to find a successor to the Herrscher, the sovereign of the land. During his search, the protagonist is confronted with the absurd aspects of life and quickly finds himself dogged by an inner conflict that tempts him to usurp Herrscher’s throne for himself.

Besides the backdrop, Der Plan also provided the music for Die Lezte Rache, from “Fernsehspiel” to “Hörspiel”. Spread throughout 32 (mostly short) pieces, it is made up of Grotesque fairytale melodies and choirs with little forrest gremlins singing in the background; it almost feels like you’re listening to a parody of childrens’ music. Included as well is an altered version of German new wave (NDW) teen hero Andreas Dorau’s “Junger Mann”, one of the few pieces that could actually be considered an actual song.

German electronica re-issue label Bureau B re-released the soundtrack in 2013, including 6 compositions from the short “Der Grottenolm”. Give it a watch and a listen, as this is probably the one and only short-lived “German absurdist expressionism” art movement.

Peter Strickland & Broadcast – Barbarian Sound studio (2012)

No sound is innocent! The shy and introverted British sound effects expert Gilderoy accepts work on a foreign film project, in the Italian Berberian film studio. At first he is led to believe that he would be performing technical sound work on a film about horses; but upon his arrival, the shady producer Francesco delivers the shocking true nature of the assignment. He is tasked to provide sound effects to a giallo film, an Italian cinematic sub-genre of thrillers or horror movies, often dealing with supernatural themes. It is common for these kind of films portray an awful amount of sexual and violent imagery; so, not quite the commission this faint-hearted character was expecting! Gilderoy’s tame nature is not built for defiance, so he quickly finds himself squashing vegetables to create sound effects for the film’s increasingly gory torture sequences.

As time passes, Gilderoy begins to feel more and more disconnected from his mother back home, and he starts to wonder if he’s out of his depth. His colleagues grow increasingly rude, both to him and one another. The horror sequences grow ever more shocking, yet Santini, the director, continue to deny that they are working on a horror film. And after a long wrangle with the bureaucracy of the film studio’s accounts department, it turns out that the plane ticket Gilderoy had submitted for a refund can’t be processed because the flight didn’t actually exist.

The boundaries between the blood-drenched giallo thriller and Gilderoy’s real life begin to erode. He imagines himself in a film about his life, becoming instantly fluent in Italian and increasingly detached and vicious. He has a final hallucination of being attacked by knife-wielding femmes fatale, before the image on the screen sputters, fragments, and melts, till Gilderoy winds up getting destroyed by cinema itself.

Already in 2010, director Peter Strickland got in touch with Broadcast members James Cargill and Trish Keenan through his earlier co-operation with member Roj Stevens. He commissioned them to create the soundtrack for the film. Alas, Keenan past away without warning in early 2011 due to complications with pneumonia. This caused a gap in project completion. Eventually, the script changed and the track Cargill and Keenan started working on made it into the score as the main theme to “the film within the movie”, “The Equestrian Vortex”.

Cargill drew inspiration from Nicola Piovani’s score for Le Orme and Luboš Fišer’s score to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Cargill’s main equipment was a laptop and dictaphone, with other sounds from synthesizers, the Mellotron, flutes, autoharp and harpsichord – an assembly of instruments that is known to listeners familiar with Broadcasts’ previous works.

It covers 39 pieces of a wide variety, with most of them barely reaching a minute.  The score could be viewed as audio visual snippets from a feverish dream, akin to the entangled memories of the main protagonist in the Barbarian sound studio. The short audio experimentations could be a great addition to a macabre radio play or a mysterious mixtape. Warp is responsible for the physical distribution of this keen film and music project.

Peter George & Jon McCallum – Surf Nazis Must Die (1987)

“The beaches have become battlefields!…The waves are a war zone!…The third Reich hangs loose!” – these powerful slogans next to the “radical” poster artwork do not live up to their promise. Instead of an action-packed B-movie thrill ride, you are served with an incoherent, slow-pacing and dull C-movie that is Surf Nazis Must Die (1987). Nonetheless, if you are a lover of movie trash, it is still a very amusing movie with a great entertainment factor. Over-the-top acting, bad stunt work and dodgy camera angles, it’s all there.

The director took a literal take on the term “surf nazis”, which in surfer jargon refers to a group of surfers who won’t allow outsider surfers to ride waves or set foot on certain beach areas. In this movie, Aryan neo-Nazis who look like as if they come straight from an Duran Duran concert, are taking over LA´s beaches. The plot goes: “surf nazis” force the entirety of LA´s surf gangs to join their Ayran heir. One of the members kill an innocent bystander of African American descent, turning his mum “Mama” into a revenge-seeking, gun-wielding, angel of death who single-handedly kills off the entire “surf nazi” enclave. The end.

For a work of pure schlock, it’s got a surprising soundtrack worth mentioning! This is composer John McCallum’s second film score entry after the work he did for the fantastic D-movie spectacle that is Miami Connection (1987), which I highly recommend watching if you are in the mood for some malicious laughter.

Cold synthesizer atmospheres that represent action-packed scenery, moments of sentimental value, threatening suspense that could be used as background wallpaper for any kind of film found in the straight-to-video section of an 80s video rental store;  yet it perfectly stands on its own when enjoyed as a musical piece stripped of all of the movie dialogue and sound effects.

John Carpenter sends his regards. Well, maybe not as iconic as Carpenter, but still a great listen for collectors of early 80s obscure synth worlds. Strange Disc Records made it available to be enjoyed on your record player.

Roman Kachanov & Aleksandr Zatsepin – Tayna tretey planety (1981)

Tayna tretey planety, also known as the “Mystery Of The Third Planet” is the title of the 1982 Soviet sci-fi animation film. Several attempts were made to market it worldwide, but it failed to make it past a single broadcast in many countries, despite the provision of a dubbed dialogue, or even an American videotaped version with child actor Kirsten Dunst voicing Alice, the lead. It is a colorful and imaginative feel-good adventure set in an utopian future where naive rules of quantum physics exist, and space travel can turn out to be just like a picnic in the park.

A professor and the captain of a space shuttle sets out on an expedition to outer-space to acquire new animals for the Moscow zoo. Alice, the captain’s daughter tags along as schools are closed for summer break. Space pirates and other troublemakers provide for the usual mischief, allowing the crew of heroes to make a couple of detours in their adventure before they safely return home.

The music for the movie was written by Aleksandr Zatsepin. The original recordings that were stored in his music library are rumored to be lost. Nonetheless, some images of record sleeves displaying the movie’s artwork were spotted on the web. Perhaps these could simply be audio transfers of the movie with all of the dialogue. There are plenty of CDs available as this version. Anyway, this soundtrack is begging for a decent (music only) release!

Beautiful spaced-out synth harmonies that are reminiscent of the film score to La Planète Sauvage or Mort Garson’s Plantasia. At times orchestral, and at times cool, groovy and drenched in resonating reverb, as if being heard while floating in outer space. For instance, the melody during the intergalactic zoo visit scene is pleasantly catchy, continuing to ring in your head for quite a while afterwards.

As long as there are still no copies to be found, have yourself a treat by watching this cute little space adventure. And listen especially to the music; it’s very present, positively mesmerizing and hard to miss.

Mario Bava & Libra – Shock (1977)

It is a well-known fact that Italian horror soundtracks of the late 70s are simply sublime. As mentioned in an entry earlier, the Italian horror library features countless works of audio art. Even some of the forgotten ones are being dug up from the tombs of obscurity, such as Libra’s score to the 1977 psychedelic thriller Schock, and Mario Bava’s last theatrical release.

A mother is slowly falling into the mouth of madness after returning to the former home where she once lived with her first abusive husband. Shattered memories of her first marriage resurfaced after being treated to therapy sessions at an insane asylum. She regains the truth about her husband’s death, whom she had murdered after being forcefully drugged up by him. Now, she believes her son to be possessed by her former tormentor and that their house is haunted. Driven by guilt and fear, she winds up killing her second husband, who had actually helped her dispose of her first husband’s dead body. Makes a lot of sense right? Believe it or not, the film is worth a watch. The parts featuring the mother’s hallucinations display a lot of cool and practical “how did they do that” effects, and a dreadful amount of suspense. Most of all, it has a remarkable film score.

Italian prog rock band Libra created a spooky funky trip with the score. All of the “prog” ingredients are present: organs, (modular) synthesizers, a piano, congas and a 4-piece rock band formation that knows how to catch a groove attack. The modular sound effects tend to get very trippy indeed, strange sounds upon even stranger sounds, making the score a perfect enhancer for the typical 70s style LSD trip. A pleasant trip does need its moments of clarity, and so this track gladly provides when the barrage of sounds and fast-paced grooves get relieved by the appearance of beautiful piano pieces that are more laid-back. Still, a threatening mood lingers constantly around the score from start to finish. Now that I think about it, I no longer recommend playing it while experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. Better yet, put it on while sitting in your comfy chair with a cup of tea and your beloved cat on your lap. Every now and then, get off your seat and go shake your behind to the heavy grooves. Peace!