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“The Castle,” “Horrors of Malformed Men”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Haneke’s “The Castle,” Kino, 1997]

The ascension of Michael Haneke of late has been a blessing in a number of ways already, including the DVDization of his notoriously cold-blooded earlier films (notably, “Funny Games,” “Benny’s Video” and “The Seventh Continent”). But the vaults are just opening up: Haneke’s years of work for Austrian TV remain unimported (including films in an episodic series entitled “Lemmings,” no relation to the National Lampoon skit show of yore), but now we can see his dry-eyed romp on Kafka, 1997’s “The Castle.” Things Kafkaesque have long been as rich pickings for cinema as they have been everywhere else (including, ironically, given the source, several operas), but none of the mere handful of adaptations of this, the great uneasy Czech’s richest and biggest, albeit unfinished, work, are as ingeniously faithful to their source as Haneke’s. It’s a low-budget, streamlined vision, as gritty and cramped as other Kafka films (even Orson Welles’s fascinating version of “The Trial”) are grandiose and lurid.

The odyssey of self-righteous and clueless land surveyor K. in the social nightmare that is the village surrounding the unseen castle, to which K. can never quite arrive or receive clear communications from, is shot in an indecorous, washed-out palette that evokes Jan Švankmajer’s films — sunshine is nonexistent, surfaces are timeworn and rough, rooms are cheap, decaying and claustrophobically small. This is not the Kafka of surreal juxtapositions but of dusty, bureaucratic bad-dreamness, Byzantine but unwritten social rules and arbitrary governmental cruelty. Haneke virtually transcribes the book, emphasizing not Kafka’s now-mythic metaphors but his cut-to-the-bone mundaneity (another Švankmajerism, and it’s surprising to note that the prolific Czech animator has never adapted Kafka himself). In Kafka’s writing, essential anxiety isn’t supposed to be “felt,” viscerally, by the reader, but observed from a wry, appalled distance, and it’s this sense that Haneke nails — despite the fact that often the dithering irrationality of “The Castle”‘s paranoid minions is so in your face you can smell the clammy sweat.

It is, in the end, a comedy whose chuckles dissolve like hopeful thoughts before they come clear of your throat. The unwashed cast handles Kafka’s cloggy dialogue with a conviction that sometimes borders on the manic, with the exception of the late Ulrich Mühe (of “The Lives of Others”) as K., exuding hilarious waves of maddened frustration and suspicion with sad, watchful eyes and a perfectly straight face. Having seen “The Castle” and, like its hero, failed to get comfortable and secure in its secretive spaces, you feel as if you’ve genuinely been there, in the rundown, petty-power-distorted Mitteleuropan villages of Kafka’s bitter memories.

Madness isn’t at all grounded in tangible reality in sadistic Japanese pulp-nut Teruo Ishii’s “Horrors of Malformed Men” (1969), now unleashed on unsuspecting psychotronic-philes, pining as they are wont to do for a forgotten absurdity that was never even seen outside of Japan until 2003’s selective festival tour. (The DVD supplements include interviews with contemporary Japanese auteurs like Shinya Tsukamoto, dazedly recalling their childhood experience of seeing it.) Based on an Edogawa Rampo tale, the film begins as an amnesiac-wrong-man nightmare (which, like “Ringu,” finds its mysteries on one of Japan’s many alluringly remote islands), and then sidles into an anti-übermensch version of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” But there’s little reason to have faith in a story that lurches and twitches like a junkie in withdrawal, and not to simply wallow in this parade of lactating psycho women, feral man-beasts, secret swastika scars, whoring Buddhist priests, dual-sex Siamese twins, surgical abominations, silver-painted futuro-nightclub dance routines, live crab eating, gangster masquerade, circus freaks and cinema’s first exploitation of Butoh (starring the creepy avant-garde dance form’s founder, Tatsumi Hijikata).

Ishii is clearly Takashi Miike’s spiritual granddad, with, amid scores of gangster and prison films, a filmography saturated with crazed mashups: ghosts, torture, giants, superheroes, aliens, you name it. Probably his most notorious film, “Malformed Men” is a ridiculous, ambitious mess, and thus a paradigm for a certain type of movie pleasure-high — the unassuming discovery of a forgotten genre ditty bursting with its eccentric maker’s unique perversity.

“The Castle” (Kino) and “Horrors of Malformed Men” (Synapse) are now available on DVD.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.