Adam Cooley (IMDB entry) is a microbudget film director and an experimental musician with the band Scissor Shock. All of his movies are available for free download from his personal site. You can also watch his output and see his favorites from others on his YouTube channel. We invited Adam to submit a “top 10 weird movies” list in 2011; here it is…
This list was really hard to compile, since I mainly watch what a lot of people would describe as ‘weird’ films—experimental, underground, off-beat, subversive cinema is what I’m primarily interested in—so I basically had to think about hundreds, if not thousands, of films for possible inclusion here. So, when asked to do this list, it took me a couple of years (!) to compile it and be happy with the end result, as I constantly felt the need to change it up. As such, many great little weird gems (Elevator Movie, Daisies, Frownland, Back Against the Wall, Small White House, Beaver Trilogy, SpaceDiscoOne, Pastoral: To Die in the Country, Liquid Sky) had to go.
To make this list a bit easier on myself, I decided to completely get rid of any hand-drawn/computer-drawn animated entries, which really could be a whole other list (if you’re curious, look into “Xavier: Renegade Angel,” “Popee the Performer,” and especially look into the works of Yoji Kuri), which obviously includes anime (the truly disturbing and strange Midori, Kuchu Buranko: Trapeze—the weirdest anime I’ve ever seen—and the more obvious but still surprisingly offbeat stuff like “Paranoia Agent,” “Serial Experiments Lain,” “Boogiepop Phantom,” and the last two episodes of “Neon Genesis Evangelion”).
I also decided to get rid of shorts which means I had to get rid of titles by Toshio Matsumoto (Phantom), Nobuhiko Obayashi (Emotion-–and, yes, I know not having Hausu is a big hole in my list), or Shuji Terayama (nearly his entire experimental film works series made drafts of this list at various points).
Finally, I got rid of any “collection” DVD’s here (though my top choice is disputable, note that all 30 shorts for it were made specifically for the DVD; it wasn’t a bunch of little shorts made at different times thrown into a collection). As such, I deleted such gems as “Phantom Museums” by Brothers Quay, “The Complete Short Films of Jan Svankmajer”, and Jeff Keen’s amazing set “GAZWRX” (which would be my # 1 choice for this list if I included collections here — watch this set immediately!). So, basically, I tried to mostly include actual “movies” here — 90-ish minutes, with actual distribution, mostly available on DVD, some by established directors, though I would love to compile separate lists of some of the stuff I excluded here.
Anyway, sorry for the long-winded explanation, but without further ado, here’s ten of the weirdest movies ever…
10. Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) [Prezít Svuj Zivot] (2010): Jan Svankmajer needs no introduction; he is quite the influential and brilliant experimental filmmaker. Really, many of his full length features—and almost all of his shorts (if I’d allowed them)—could have fit into this list. However, I chose this film, his most recent, which is almost a compilation of all his bizarre techniques, though he also invented lots of new weird devices specific to this film. The backgrounds the characters interact with are odd, mixing computer-generated elements with handmade sets. A lot of the film is still pictures of the characters, although there is plenty of stop-motion animation too. Beyond the presentation, there are also plenty of weird characters, like the pet man with a bulldog head. Visually, this film is even stranger to look at than most of the films on this list, but the storyline is a bit more coherent and conventional than upcoming entries—not to mention that several of the weirdest sequences take place inside of a dream, whereas most of the aforementioned films place their stranger moments in reality—hence why this is down here at # 10. Atill, I highly recommend this film. Top notch editing, acting, and artistry are on display here.
9. Death Powder (1986): The first draft of this list was dominated by Japanese films—Labyrinth of Dreams, Pinocchio 964, Rampo Noir, Hausu, Splatter: Naked Blood, Funeral Procession of Roses, Pastoral: To Die in the Country, etc.— but after some thought, it seemed like a good idea to include just this one here. After all, this film basically combines every single element that made those films so insane and goes even further. In fact, it often make those films look restrained by comparison. At one point, a character says to the camera, “try to pretend that you understand what it’s all about.” I think he is talking about the movie, which starts out as a weird romance and then turns into a surreal avant-splatter cyberpunk film. There is a bizarre music video sequence (complete with behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot in the movie itself!) featuring a flamboyant and hilariously insane part-time 80’s hair metal rock star and a part-time scientist, as well as odd mosaiced faces in a chase scene. There is a soundtrack consisting primarily of noise music. There is a complete abandonment of the established storyline near the end; instead the film becomes a series of bizarre images (ever seen an image of a gigantic eyeball from a slime monster superimposed over a doorway that sorta looks like it was made from line-drawing?) Visually, it’s just as crazy as the films I listed earlier in this entry (this film has a lot more weird, low budget effects than any of those films, however, not to mention a constant use of blue screen, primarily used to film characters talking while images from a computer screen play in the background), but for sheer weirdness of the overall plot (or lack thereof), it’s unmatched. This is folk singer/actor Shigeru Izumiya’s only directed film and isn’t commercially available in any conventional sense, despite it being one of the first (if not the first) cyberpunk films; still, it needs to be seen ASAP.
8. Zero (1997): James Fotopoulos, who is absolutely one of my favorite directors, has done over 100 movies in the past decade, including the bizarre indie masterpiece Back Against the Wall. This, his first film, focuses on one character (who looks exactly like Gibby from Butthole Surfers) in one house making insane misogynistic and racist rants while strange, ill-fitting, minimalist xylophone music plays. Cut to lovingly-filmed purple-tinted shots of mannequin parts, naked woman parts, and a burnt guy’s face, with a subtle vaccumous drone on the soundtrack. Then cut to insane scratched-up film sequences with explosions of colors and a floating skull—sequences that resemble Stan Brakhage, Jeff Keen, and the trip sequence from 2001, though with what sounds like Merzbow playing in the background. Repeat this process for 2 hours and 45 minutes, with subtle variations on the 3 main scenes each time (eventually, the scenes kinda come together, with the main character having sex with the mannequin, after the roadkill he pleasures himself with starts to bore him). It’s an exhausting and challenging watch, but I found the near-3-hour run time flew by because I was so fascinated. There is a sense of isolation and loneliness not really seen in many other films, undoubtedly from all the time spent alone with one guy in one house. This film is an intimate look at a lonely, depressed, psychotic character… and it’s also very, very weird.
7. The Cat [Lao Mao] (1992): This film, by the director of the also-insane (for different reasons) Riki-Oh, starts off like your average cheesy horror film, featuring a supernatural cat (though not exactly the Hausu kind) who holds the key to outer space. But things quickly take a turn for the ultraweird as there is a guy, pretty much unconnected to the rest of the plot, who gets killed after being betrayed while buying some illegal guns. He gets shot to death and then, for reasons never explained, turns into basically “the Terminator” for the rest of the film. I guess the filmmakers were going for a Robocop thing, as the way Officer Murphy died was similar to the way this character dies, but even Robocop reacted to bullets penetrating his armor after his rebirth. Not this guy. So, he begins randomly killing people (in one instance, he stuffs a grenade in a guy’s mouth, in a scene that has to be seen to be believed) and he goes after the heroes: a guy, a girl, and the aforementioned supernatural cat. Now, the cat just broke into a museum and stole a priceless artifact, and a dog goes after him. This leads to an epic “how-did-they-film-that?!” fight scene between the cat and dog. You’d expect the clawing, biting, and running. But there are also insane POV shots from the cat’s point of view, as well as an ending wherein the trapped cat is about to be killed by the dog, until the cat electrocutes the dog (with cheesy 80’s lightning effects—which were still being used in the early 1990’s, as evidence in this film… as well as in Ernest Goes to Jail-–except this time the effect goes a step further and it disturbingly shows the inside of the dog, a la an X-RAY machine. Seeing a normal everyday dog getting zapped and then seeing his bloody skeletal insides is pretty shocking). There’s some standard action, horror, and comedy sequences to kind of make you think this film is going to be normal from here on out—until we get to the end, which is completely insane to an extreme degree. For one thing, the cat can now levitate. For another, a gigantic electrified yogurt monster explodes into a cafeteria and kills everyone, drowning some and making others somehow burst into flames. The yogurt monster changes from slime into a somewhat more conventional monster shape, only to be defeated by our heroes. It subsequently turns into glitter which snows on everyone, and then our heroes go to Heaven or space or something.
6. Stagefright (1981): A largely improvised surreal theater piece, this is genius independant auteur Jon Jost at his most experimental and downright insane. Nearly the entire film is unprofessional actors improvising psychotically and extremely expressively in front of a black background. While this might sound boring—and trust me, it would be in the hands of a director less skilled than Jost—at 70 minutes long, it’s a perfect length, and it really leaves you wanting more. There is a weird stop motion sequence with a girl painting her face as well as a 10-minute close-up of a guy’s mouth as he makes noises and weird shapes with his mouth as the camera remains lovingly static. And when you least expect it, there’s actual footage of real life violence. Creepy and often bleak, it is not as “easy” piece of moviemaking, often resembling Godard’s masterpiece Le Gai Savoir [Joy of Learning] at its most challenging, but its quite a brilliant piece of work.
5. King Lear (1987): Many of Jean-Luc Godard‘s films were pretty strange when they came out, but even at his weirdest, there still was usually somewhat identifiable themes or a narrative to follow. Here? Everything is thrown out the window. First of all, this is based on Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” but Godard has never read “King Lear.” So, instead, he takes a few “Cliff’s Notes” scenes and characters and elements from the play, and the rest of the movie is based on Godard’s own imagination… though most of the movie is just a guy walking around a deserted landscape as distorted Beethoven plays. Random seagull noises are heard on the soundtrack—the random first-person shots from the seagull’s point-of-view predate the birds’ POV in Argento‘s Opera, though here they serve no purpose. Honestly, this film feels like an early precursor to Inland Empire in the way it’s structured and well as its focus on bizarre characters and the way the narrative flows mostly nonsensically from scene to scene. Lear even features an actor walking off set (for real: he was upset with Godard and screamed at the director while walking out. Godard left the footage in the film). There’s also Woody Allen safety-pinning strips of film together and then jumping into a pile of it, Molly Ringwald (who was HUGE at the time—what’s she doing here?), and Godard X’ing out pictures of directors he was feuding with or just generally didn’t like at the time (with a few insults thrown at Truffaut). The sheer randomness of this production makes King Lear one strange little film, though I gotta admit I almost added Godard’s Oh, Woe Is Me to this list as well. It’s a film that deserves special note just for a scene where a random extra in the background walks by the camera’s point of view and then steps back into frame to put his hand over the camera, obscuring the audience’s view as well as breaking the 4th wall to pieces; this is one moment that genuinely shocked and amazed me in a film filled with mind-blowing sequences—track it down immediately, as it’s overall a much better film than King Lear, though not as strange.
4. Reflections of Evil (2002): Originally 4 hours long, the DVD you’re more likely to find has 2 hours chopped from it, mostly of old VHS recordings of random news segments. This film follows no rules, going from a hypersurreal comedy about a fat vomiting man (who frequently explodes, or acts like he’s going to) screaming and selling bootleg watches, to something that closely resembles a horror film in look and feel and soundtrack, to a film more recognizably “experimental” in its imagery and use of cuts. Refelections integrates an interesting use of blue-screen, with the main character and director Damon Packard superimposing himself running away from explosions coming from a cannon at Universal Studios—oh, that reminds me, a large chunk of this film is comprised of home movies and stuff obviously not originally shot for a movie, which gives the whole thing a strange, nostalgic charm. Anyway, while this is probably a bit too much for the average viewer, this film’s complete disregard for any sort of narrative or rules is what makes it so inspiring; not to mention how successful it is on a technical level, with the best sound design I’ve heard in a weird low-budget film since the amazing Bride of Frank. Also, note that Reflections was mostly shot on film over the course of many years, sending the director into bankruptcy. Also note that Packard passed out 29,000 copies of this movie on DVD for free to random people, as well as mailing unsolicited copies to celebrities (many who became angry at the director), and you have a remarkable one-of-a-kind achievement in independent cinema.
3. I-Be Area (2007): Ryan Trecartin’s two-hour masterpiece seems designed to exhaust the viewer’s eyes and mind, with its free use of cuts from 2D to 3D to 4D shapes; also, the film often takes screaming, pitch-shifted insane teens and dancing kids and has them rant endlessly about who-knows-what. This whole film seems like a statement on sensory overload—how the Facebook/Twitter/iPhone/etc. age constantly assaults our minds with images and text (almost no one in this film is without a laptop or smart phone, BTW, and the camera often shows texts the characters have sent). The whole thing is very bizarre and seems pretty random, as when three dorm room characters talk and the camera pans out from a full-screen view to show them inside of a little box and surrounded by CGI palm trees, with the camera then following the 3D computer-generated ocean as various math symbols and text messages are displayed in big blocky 3D letters on the screen.
2. Dandy Dust (1998): From the first frame, you can tell you’re going to get something inexplicable here. The film comes in and you’re greeted with eye-bleeding oversaturated colors, characters with all sorts of strange makeup, background sets obviously made of cardboard, and long stretches of somewhat Shakespearian dialogue that the editors didn’t even attempt to match to character’s mouths moving. Soon, you will get a gigantic spider coming from the ceiling and you’ll notice all the characters’ movements are chopped to pieces, thanks to all the use of stop-motion (or pixelation). Add in a completely chopped-up nonsensical narrative, and the fact that (with all the homemade costumes and sets) the whole film feels like a demented school play—though one that focuses on space travel and spider vagina men.
1. Shaye and Kiki: Fun Bubble [AKA Shaye and Kiki: The Triggers Compilation] (2004): I don’t even know how to explain this complete sensory overload, which often resembles Ryan Trecartin’s work but came out before his stuff and is a LOT more insane and disturbing. The 30 little shorts—or “Triggers”, as they’re known on here—that come together to make Fun Bubble mostly focus on Shaye St. John, a screaming and insane disfigured former supermodel, who abuses her burnt doll Kiki. They have wild adventures around the house, where Shaye will repeatedly scream and run around and bang her head against the window. Everything is edited so there’s never any downtime; it’s just a constant assault against your senses. It may not sound all that strange, but it’s hard to put into text what is so off-putting and creepy about it. Just look it up.