All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

13*. PROMETHEUS’ GARDEN (1988)

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“I guess danger and weirdness have always been the main features in most of my stories.”–Bruce Bickford

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Bruce Bickford

FEATURING: Bruce Bickford’s handmade clay models

PLOT: A man discovers a garden and figures oozing out of a hole, who he fashions into miniature people who then begin multiplying on their own. The man is then sucked into a planet which he has created, and chased first by vikings, then centurions. There is no coherent start-to-end plot, but some segments of the film enact mini-stories.

Still from Prometheus' Garden (1988) 

BACKGROUND:

  • Animator Brice Bickford gained modest underground fame when his animations graced ‘s concert film Baby Snakes (1979) and The Dub Room Special (1982). Prometheus’ Garden is the only film Bickford made over which he had complete control, however.
  • Prometheus’ Garden was completed in 1988, but rarely seen until a 2008 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the gang of newly-minted werewolves enjoying slices of pizza; an octopus lies on the pie along with the other toppings. Don’t like that pick? Skip to any random point in the movie and you’ll see something just as weird.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Werewolf paint; monster pizza

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Human heads grow in a field. Imps and demons spontaneously generate from the soil. Clay figures disembowel each other. Nude Viking women slather themselves with Vaseline in the sauna. Every element of the movie is in constant motion for thirty minutes. Weird hardly even begins to cover it.


Original trailer for Prometheus’ Garden

COMMENTS: Flesh-colored flowers grow out of a green field, turning into big-headed monsters as cotton ball smoke wafts across the Continue reading 13*. PROMETHEUS’ GARDEN (1988)

CAPSULE: HONEYDEW (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Devereux Milburn

FEATURING: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Jamie Bardley

PLOT: A lost couple spend the night at a peculiar old woman’s farmhouse.

Still from Honeydew (2020)

COMMENTS: Honeydew is a roller coaster of horror—but I don’t mean that in an altogether complimentary sense. Rather, the problem is that the film is as uneven (and, sometimes, as twisted) as the Cyclone’s track. When Honeydew is on, it’s creepy as hell. But when it’s off, it’s a case of “yeah, I totally saw that coming.”

The pre-credits sequence is strong, beginning with a young girl’s faltering voice reciting some religious dogma, leading to an intercut sequence of a black-veiled widow at a funeral and a hunter investigating what appears to be an abandoned barn. This montage also highlights what will turn out to be Honeydew‘s only consistently great feature: the sound design and score. The creepy voiceover is accented by eerie hums, rural insect choirs, fluttering percussion, and musical notes that sound like bonesaws being scraped over piano wire.

This promising start yields to a setup of two city slickers traveling to the country to encounter all the familiar backwoods horror cliches: silently-staring yokels, a spooky old man advising them to move along, lack of cellphone service. You may forgive this connective section as a necessary step on the way to the real plot, and your assumption would be correct. Once the couple finds their way to batty old Barbara Kingsley farmhouse, things pick up considerably. We lose track of time entirely; the couple arrives in what must be the middle of the night, but their host insists on cooking them a huge dinner, and after they finish they always seem to be preparing for bed without ever actually getting to sleep. The night is endless, and scored to endless bumps; transitions between scenes can be disorientingly abrupt, and sometimes it seems like the film might be jumping back and forth in time. Significant creepiness is supplied by Kingsley’s son, with his bandaged head, a barely-responsive demeanor, and a penchant for public domain Popeye cartoons (which, in another bit of bravura sound design, becomes the nightmare soundtrack to an epileptic fit).

That section of the film is near-excellent. Unfortunately, once it becomes time to wrap things up, and the dreams fade away and the mystery dries up. What had seemed to have a supernatural, psychological edge resolves into, basically, a torture porn finale that goes exactly where you feared it would. A gross ending sequence goes on a bit too long, lessening its impact. I do think that a certain breed of horror fan will enjoy the transgressive grotesqueness of the third act, but it’s not really of a piece with the film’s dreamlike middle section; if you’re going into Honeydew hoping for something wall-to-wall weird, you’ll be disappointed.

To recap: a strong pre-credits sequence is followed by a pedestrian setup leading to a superbly creepy second act petering out in a disappointing finale. Debuting director Milburn does great when focused on building atmosphere, but bogs down when it’s time to advance the plot. Give him a script that’s more free-flowing and isn’t so insistent on ticking all the standard Texas Chainsaw boxes, and he could deliver a real feast.

Honeydew is currently in limited release and virtual theaters, coming to VOD on August 13.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reviving the spirit of ‘70s North American rural horror while very much still feeling like a film tapped into out contemporary moment, Honeydew is one of the wildest, weirdest horror films of the year.”–Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alliance of Women Film Journalists (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE FATHER (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Florian Zeller

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Anthony, an old man with dementia, has difficulty recognizing the people around him, or remembering where he is.

Still from The Father (2020)

COMMENTS: The Father delivers exactly what its synopsis and trailer promise it will: a movie with the shape of a psychological thriller and the emotional punch of a heartrending drama. And, of course, a performance for the ages (and the aged) by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Directing from his own play, first time filmmaker Florian Zeller delivers a tight screenplay that disorients viewers, purposefully. We follow (loosely speaking) the story of Anthony and his daughter Anne, as the old man tries to retain first his independence, and then his simple dignity, as his mind slips away into dotage. There are temporal incongruities; Anthony thinks things that actually happened a decade ago occurred just yesterday, and script’s timeline mimics this dislocation by jumping forward and back (and in one memorable scene, forming a perfect circle). Anthony’s daughter and son-in-law are sometimes played by different actors—not to mention the numerous aides he cycles through—we can never be sure if they’re new hires, or old ones Anthony simply doesn’t recognize. Locations also change, and mysteries emerge: why doesn’t Anthony’s other daughter visit him? Is Anne moving to Paris, or not? The few scenes without Hopkins in them seem to reflect a canonical reality, but even then we can’t be 100% sure; one scene in particular seems to reflect Anne’s dark fantasy.

Ironically, although we come to identify with him, we do not learn a lot about Anthony as a person. Anne drops hints as to his previous career—which was not a tap dancer—and we know he loves opera. But much of his personality is disappearing into the murk of Alzheimers; Anthony is headed towards a generic senility, in the process of becoming less and less of a individual. This, of course, is the tragedy that Hopkins is capturing as his weathered face registers irritation, confusion, and dawning fear. The loss of individual memories suggests the loss of everything that makes us unique. The big final emotional breakdown scene may be the tiniest bit overdone, but Hopkins sells it—and at any rate, the movie has banked enough empathy by this point that it could get away with almost anything.

Olivia Colman’s supporting work as the stressed-out daughter is great, but this is understandably Hopkins’ showcase. Although he’s not slowing down, it’s almost a shame for the octogenarian to act again; he could not hope for a better role than this to end his career.

Although eligible for the 2020 Oscars, The Father did not show up in theaters until 2021; had it debuted earlier, it would have crashed my top 10 mainstream films list for the past year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… very little is what it seems in this meticulously constructed jewel box of a film… Not since ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ has a filmmaker so thoroughly put the audience inside the experience of a protagonist, to such shattering emotional effect.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (1969)

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DIRECTED BY: Emilio Vieyra

FEATURING: Ricardo Bauleo, Aldo Barbero, Gloria Prat, Susana Beltrán

PLOT: A mad scientist uses his monster army to drug and kidnap horny hippies, whom he arouses so he can drain a fluid from them.

Still from The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969)

COMMENTS: At bottom, The Curious Dr. Humpp is a formulaic 1950s-style mad scientist flick enlivened by a couple of bizarre touches. Most obviously, there is a lot of simulated sex. The threadbare plot involves Humpp sending his masked “monsters” to kidnap libidinous youngsters and feed them aphrodisiacs so that he can extract a mystery substance from them when they are sexually aroused, which he uses in the typical mad scientist quest for immortality, or something. This scenario leads to perverse permutations of the typically shoddy mad scientist dialogue (“I must position this positive electrode against the nerves of the libido. If this experiment succeeds, I’ll not only be able to restrain lust, but also turn humans into veritable screwing machines!”) These elements mix together to create a movie that you might call “curious.”

The original Argentinian cut of the film (La venganza del sexo) ran only about 70 minutes, so the American producers added an additional 15 minutes of softcore writhing (along with the extra “p” in Dr. Humpp’s name) before releasing this monstrosity to grindhouses. Some of the transitions between new and old footage are abrupt, with the soundtrack not following the visuals. Scenes of a perpetually masturbating blonde, for example, are clearly spliced in with re-used reaction shots of Dr. Humpp and his buxom nurse assistant to create new scenes. The new prisoners’ cells in Humpp’s manor look exactly the same as the rooms from which they were initially abducted.

Despite its South American origins, the enterprise has an early Eurosleaze vibe. The cinematography is far superior to the script; the camerawork is crisp, utilizing interesting angles. One sex scene, for example, is shot with a bubbling beaker in the foreground tastefully blocking colliding genitals from view. The discordant sci-fi soundtrack, with its theremins, jazzy vibraphone interludes, and the sounds of bubbling laboratory liquids used as a percussive element, is also above the otherwise low baseline the film sets. And there are a few minor bits of weird genius, like the monster serenade pictured above, and the under-explained talking brain in the jar (which may have inspired the similar character in Blood Diner).

I’m pretty sure that, if I’d first seen this in my twenties, I would have thought it one of the strangest curiosities in existence; so, if you’re a dedicated fan (or Humpper, as dedicated fans of this movie have never been called), I can understand. But I’ve been spoiled by decades of watching movies, and at this point Humpp no longer appears so singular. But the movie does lie squarely within the weird zone, and, if you have a high tolerance for long stretches of simulated black-and-white humpping, it’s unique enough to recommend to the curious.

2021’s Something Weird/AGFA Blu-ray reissue includes the original La venganza del sexo cut for the first time (you can even watch it with subtitles!) There’s also a commentary track from genre maven , trailers, and the campy sleaze short “Tomb It May Concern” (Something Weird’s Humpp DVD featured three bonus shorts—“Rasputin and the Princess,” “The Girl and the Skeleton,” and “My Teenage Fallout Queen”—so this is actually a rare Blu-ray downgrade).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chock full of bumping and grinding in both lesbian and straight sex varieties, The Curious Dr. Humpp might not make a whole lot of sense but it doesn’t matter, it’s seriously weird enough to work.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KEEP AN EYE OUT [AU POSTE!] (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Grégoire Ludig, , Marc Fraize

PLOT: A detective interviews a man who has discovered a corpse under not-very-suspicious circumstances.

Still from Keep an Eye Out (Au Poste) (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Quentin Dupieux’s effervescently surreal policier parody recalls vintage 70s cinema. And it’s actually pretty weird.

COMMENTS: The thing that strikes me about Keep an Eye Out is that it feels dashed off—effortlessly. It clocks in at just over an hour, it’s mostly dialogue-based, and it only features two major performers and only a handful of different sets. There are no special effects to speak of, and the most expensive and complicated scene is the opening, where a man is arrested for conducting a symphony orchestra in a field. The script is filled with digressions, but still feels tight. Ludig and Poelvoorde deliver absurd lines matter-of-factly, commenting on the hole in a detective’s torso or a man eating a whole oyster (shell and all) with nothing stronger than mild curiosity. They remain completely inside this world, never suggesting that they’re in on the joke. Everything seems to come easy to this movie.

This ease and emphasis on dialogue and subtly dreamlike situations puts me (and others) in mind of late (minus the social satire). There is a pleasing flow in the way the situation starts out offbeat, and keeps growing weirder and weirder. The interrogation of poor regular guy Fugain (Ludig, who only discovered the body and is obviously innocent of any crime) begins in medias res, with detective Buron (Poelvoorde) taking a break to schedule a social engagement over the phone while the hungry witness patiently waits to conclude the business so he can get dinner. Although the interrogation is odd, with Buron fixated on insignificant details and slowly typing up Fugain’s responses up in real time, things take a turn when the inspector asks his associate, a one-eyed policeman, to take over while he goes on (another) break. This leads to a  strange accident, which I won’t spoil except to say that it (potentially, at least) ups the movie’s stakes. Buron returns and the interrogation resumes, but we now see Fugain describing events in flashbacks—flashbacks which contain time paradoxes, because characters who could not have been on the scene show up and start interacting with his memories. Buron continues to be obstinately suspicious, while missing evidence of an actual crime that’s hiding in plain sight. But despite some suspense trappings, the script’s actually quite light and witty, and only loosely tethered to its police procedural structure.

Whereas Dupieux’s subsequent film, Deerskin (2019), is an examination of masculinity and an artistic self-reflection, Keep an Eye Out suggests no deeper themes beyond the desire to make you laugh. Rather than a symphony, the movie plays like a jazz solo, with Dupieux simply riffing on whatever crazy idea comes into his mind. The only off note comes at the very end, a reality shift that—once again—recalls Buñuel, but also suggests a writer admitting he has no way to end his story. Still, as a standalone bit, this “big reveal” actually works just fine. String together enough gags like that, and you could make a pretty entertaining movie out of it, actually.

Au Poste! was completed before Deerskin, but is being released in the U.S. a year later. Suddenly prolific director Dupieux already has two more in the pipeline: Mandibles (2020), a comedy about a giant fly, and the currently-in-production Incredible but True [Incroyable mais vrai].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many of these poker-faced absurdities are quite funny, and a few are so inspired that Dupieux might have done better to run with one of them, rather than serving up a smorgasbord of disconnected weirdness… This filmmaker’s madness could use just a little more method.”–Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)