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.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EVANGELION: 3.0 + 1.0 THRICE UPON A TIME (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Fumihiko Tachiki, , , Yuriko Yamaguchi; , John Swaney, , , Mary Faber (English dub)

PLOT: Angsty teenage Eva pilot Shinji must cope with his guilt over inadvertently causing the Third Impact, and regroup to face NERV and his own father in a final apocalyptic battle.

Stiill from Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The movie garners significant weird credentials by being only the second anime ever made about emo teenagers piloting giant robots to stave off a psychedelic apocalypse that ends by blasting its protagonist into a surreal purgatory where he wrestles with the nature of reality that’s actually a metaphor for mental illness. In this case, it’s more of a question of what might keep Thrice Upon a Time out of the Apocrypha. The answer there is more difficult, but this alternate take on a story already enshrined in the canon of weird movies does come equipped with one big negative: just to follow the basics—which is a far cry from “understanding” the film—requires you to watch (at a minimum) the three previous movies in the “rebuild series” on top of this 3.5 hour epic.

COMMENTS: Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time concludes a one-of-a-kind epic anime journey with one of the unwieldiest titles ever slapped upon a major release. The “thrice” probably refers to the series’ three different alternate endings—the TV finale, 1997’s End of Evangelion, and this one.

Is this the definitive conclusion to the story, or merely the final one? That will be a matter of taste, but 3.0 + 1.0 boasts some advantages over previous finales. For one thing, it gives more closure to the supporting characters. In previous versions, the story arcs of Eva pilot Asuka and, to some extent, antagonist Gendo were suddenly abandoned to focus on Shinji’s solipsistic hallucinations. Here, these characters play a larger role—Gendo’s motivations are explored in much greater detail—which is, in a conventional narrative sense, more satisfying. The mysterious clone Rei also follows a completely new plotline, resulting in a deeper catharsis than before, when she functioned mostly as a plot device.

Structurally, 3.0 + 1.0 is an odd duck, as Anno tries to keep his many balls juggling with one hand while tying up loose ends with the other. It starts with a four-minute rebuild recap, too brief to orient newcomers but effectively refreshing the memories of series’ followers who waited nine years between the release of 3.0 and 3.0 + 1.0. This is followed by an extended action scene where the renegades of the Wille organization, assisted by Eva pilot Mari, liberate Paris from NERV; it’s superfluous, but supplies an opportunity for an big action sequence up front, and helps to re-establish the good guys and the bad guys.

After this prologue, the movie unexpectedly turns into a post-apocalyptic drama as Shinji, Asuka and Rei shelter in a small village of survivors of the Third Impact. This hour-long, character-based story detour is unexpected, but not as disruptive as you might think. It’s a space for Anno to enact the major change to his story. Shinji still suffers from catatonic melancholia, as in previous iterations; but here, he works his way through his guilt and grief and recovers, resolving to fight against NERV by the conclusion of his stay. This revision allows him to be a vital and active participant heading into the final showdown, which in previous installments had been about the sullen teen working through the nadir of his depression. Since the protagonist’s self-loathing whininess had always been one of the major obstacles to enjoying Evangelion, this alteration will be viewed as an improvement for many. (The out-of-story explanation for this change is that Anno, who recovered from his own bout of depression decades ago, no longer identifies with the whiny, paralytic Shinji, and in fact now has more in common with Gendo, who is a far more sympathetic villain this time around.)

The last hour and a half of the movie gives fans what they came for: robot/spaceship battles, bizarre sciento-mystical musings, and eye-popping visual fireworks (and even a touch of fanservice). The Wille crew, with the three surviving Eva pilots, plunge into the bowels of NERV headquarters in a hellish descent into a bottomless red burrow, with Evas fighting off hordes of enemies as they fall. As always, Anno’s dialogue is thick with poetic-sounding nonsense. “Gendo Ikari–you used the Key of Nebuchadnezzar and willingly abandoned your humanity?,” Maya accuses. “I merely appended upon my body information that transcends the Logos of our realm,” answers the villain in a robotic deadpan. Half the dialogue here sounds like Philip K. Dick was hired to do a rewrite of the Revelation of St. John. The final action sequences are pure visual mayhem, decidedly NSFE (not safe for epileptics), with cascading pixels in a constant chaotic dance. Every space within the NERV netherworld is constantly exploding into some kind of cosmic kaleidoscope, mandala, or fractal geometry. The film does end up exploring the same surreal psychological spaces as End of Evangelion, but spends less time there, and more in a more conventional conflict between Shinjii and his father (who at one point face off in mirror-image Evas battling across imaginary landscapes).

Overall, I preferred the way End of Evangelion launched straight into the crazy from the get-go, and the peculiarity of its fascination with the unappealing Shinji. But I didn’t feel cheated by this version, and I can see how many fans might find this to be the more satisfying—and indeed ultimate—conclusion to the tale. Not for newcomers, since a four-movie commitment is almost a necessity, but for anyone who’s dipped their toes into Anno’s deranged opus before, this will rate as must see anime. It’s the true End of Evangelion, and the end of an era.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anno opens the film with crowd-pleasing action, delves into the psychological stuff, shifts to a skirmish set beyond all planes of reality and finds yet another psychological plane beyond those planes, and it’s all bedecked by wondrously detailed and tirelessly creative psychedelic imagery. Theoretically, one could ignore the almost impenetrably dense plotting and objectively watch the film for its visuals alone, from the elegant, Ghibli-esque simplicity of its Tokyo-3 scenes to the second half’s parade of hallucinatory sequences, each one crazier than the previous.”–John Serba, Decider (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TICKLES THE CLOWN (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: BC Fourteen

FEATURING: Voices of , Jennifer Fourteen, Marco Guzman

PLOT: 2000 years in the future, the alien Illuminati have taken over Earth, and the key to defeating them lies in the DNA of an imprisoned sociopathic clown super-criminal.

Still from Tickles the Clown (2021)

COMMENTS: Tickles the Clown is notable simply because, by all rational criteria, it shouldn’t exist. A spoofy science fiction saga mocking conspiracy theories done in the style of an extremely cheap video game, it appears to come solely from the obsessive mind of one “B.C. Fourteen,” a prolific (111 writing credits) director/screenwriter who also produces work under the names “B.C. Furtney” and “Christopher Maitland.” It’s the latest installment in a four-movie-and-counting series that includes Bigfoot vs. the Illuminati, Trump vs the Illuminati, and Bigfoot vs Megalodon.

Besides the unaccountable fact that there were three previous movies in the series, two things stand out about Tickles. The first is the animation, which appears to use some video game engine modeling technology like Unreal Engine together with a stock library of motion captures. It’s clearly not hand animated; characters’ faces never change expression (for that reason, several of them are almost always depicted in helmeted spacesuits), and backgrounds are completely static. In place of expressive movements, characters sway slightly or gesticulate at random, like video game avatars awaiting entry into conversation with a player. The effect is slightly uncanny, but, at feature length, mostly tedious. One of the movie’s biggest shocks come in the credits, when you discover it took a team of eleven individuals to create this animation.

The second notable feature is the movie’s insane world-building (much of which we gather from the explanation on the back of the DVD, along with a lengthy exposition drop or two). The series is set two millennia in the future, and the Illuminati antagonists are stereotypical “grey” aliens led by a clone of , who is building some kind of Death Star and also has black magick rituals up his sleeve. Meanwhile, Big Foot—a jive-talkin’ Big Foot, no less—has joined the Rebel Alliance; a conversation with a werewolf who appears on his spaceship’s viewscreen divulges some backstory that is likely familiar to longtime viewers of the series (aw, who am I kidding?)

As for the movie… it’s mostly dull and talky, but every now and then it sparkles with some demented absurdity. The main plot has heroine Princess Kali repeatedly returning to criminal mastermind Tickles’ maximum security cell to try to convince or bribe him into giving up a blood sample (for ludicrously contrived reasons, they can’t get the genetic markers they need if the blood is taken involuntarily). Thus, most of the movie is just a drawn-out conversation between Kali and the recalcitrant-but-horny Tickles, who taunts her with his super-genius insights into her character and background (and tries to get her to show him her boobs). In other words, it’s a Silence of the Lambs rip-off plot in a Star Wars rip-off setting. But those odd touches! It starts off with a quote from Nietzsche, which is not a promising opening for an indie comedy. Every now and then, a bit of live-action stock footage—a mushroom cloud, a cup of tea, an elephant penis (!)—appears to punctuate the script’s point. There’s the relative star power of Bill Oberst, Jr., who injects a surprising malevolent life force into the perpetually grinning Tickles, laughing maniacally and generally playing the role like a potty-mouthed Saturday morning cartoon villain hopped up on too much sugary cereal. Big Foot is cringily voiced as an African American (he even says “word!” at one point). There are numerous plot holes, including the fact that Tickles’ big escape from a maximum security galactic jail is completely unexplained in-movie (the box cover clarifies the situation, albeit with a typo, although to be fair it also describes a completely different plot than the one in the movie).

Tickles the Clown is intended as a comedy, although it’s not very funny. It often plays as a comedy of errors, though one not funny enough for the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. By all accounts, it’s not any better or worse than the previous three entries in the series. Even as cheaply produced as these movies are, given the spotty distribution—Tickles is only available on DVD, one of the previous three movies is on Amazon Prime, but not the rest— it’s hard to believe they are making enough money to justify hiring Bill Oberst for voiceover.  Forget the question of whether the psychopathic clown and the alien Aleister Crowley clone will team up to defeat Big Foot and the generic space rebels, the big mystery posed by the Illuminati series is: how are these obscure movies continuing to get made, in the face of the world’s utter indifference?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The series is pretty wild for the most part but what could be something very fun and memorable has been a tough chore to finish…  It’s one of the most difficult films [in the series] to watch and I was not a fan. Skip it.”–“Blacktooth,” Horror Society (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE BEST OF DORIS WISHMAN (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Anonymous

FEATURING: Archival footage

PLOT: This odd little disc is a collection of segments and trailers from Doris Wishman movies, along with edited footage from other psychotronic films set to swinging vintage catalog music.

Still from The Best of Doris Wishman (2021)

COMMENTS: If you’re anything like me, you’ve been searching for a compilation of the sleazy strip-club jazz music featured in little-old-lady-cum-disreputable-pornographer Doris Wishman’s offbeat 1960s and 1970s exploitation movies for years. Having actually looked at that sentence typed out, it occurs to me that you are almost certainly nothing like me. But please read on anyway.

Something Weird’s “The Best of Doris Wishman” advertises itself as a soundtrack (your choice of CD or vintage vinyl) with an accompanying DVD “filled with Doris’ outrageous oeuvre!” Since this is a movie site, we won’t be delving deeply into the aesthetic qualities Wishman’s music. The original songs commissioned especially for her early nudist movies are pure kitsch (“I’m moonin’ over you, my little moon doll,” croons Ralph Young in the theme to Nude on the Moon.) The library music  selected to accompany Wishman’s roughies are often surprisingly competent, if not always germane to the onscreen action—as if the director were picking at random from a stack of nearby 45s. But again, we’re not here for the music.

The ad copy doesn’t really explain what part of “Doris’ outrageous oeuvre” is on the DVD. If you guessed “trailers,” you’re mostly correct. The video content is synced to the accompanying soundtrack, to the point where you are offered a countdown so you can drop your needle on your record at the appropriate start point (I believe only the LP syncs up, as with bonus tracks the CD has a slightly longer running time). Although the content is mostly trailers, for several segments—mostly the early naturalist films—the original tunes play over scenes of nudists frolicking in the nudie pool, using beach balls to carefully cover up their pubic hair. Sprinkled throughout the assembly you’ll find audio cues of Wishman caught on tape, usually to embarrassing effect (she forgets which partner was on top when blocking a love scene; her cameraman yells at her to get out of the shot). Nineteen of Wishman’s thirty-one movies are represented here in some form, including both Indecent Desires and Bad Girls Go to Hell (in trailer form only, although the soundtrack has an additional cut for each). For a fan, it’s a fine trip down memory lane, and it’s unlikely that any but the most dedicated Wishmanites will have seen all these movies.

But that’s not all! The real surprise, and an unexpected treat, is a collection of bonus content that’s almost as long as the feature. You see, the soundtrack music was remastered by an outre audophile company called Modern Harmonic, in collaboration with Something Weird (who own Wishman’s movie catalog). After the feature presentation ends, Modern Harmonic throws in an additional 25 minutes of musical highlights—ranging from early soul to jazz to rock n roll—scored to edits of various other Something Weird titles. These are taken from other LP/CD releases, either “Something Weird Greatest Hits” or individual soundtrack releases. Some of them are just clips or trailers, but others are edited experimentally: action sequences from Doll Squad are rejiggered to make the actors dance to a funky bongo-riffic groove; a cute-but-spiteful 50s brunette from Fuzz Box gets trapped in a loop enviously checking out a blonde rival, serenaded by a psychedelic band who wouldn’t rock out in their garage for another decade and a half. And a crapsetrpiece like Dracula (The Dirty Old Man) doesn’t require fancy tricks to hold its own: just show an abridged version of the film, with Dracula and his press-on goatee spying on and abducting swinging sixties maidens with the help of his werewolf companion while a sax and organ combo vamps for five minutes.

The Wishmania was welcome, but Modern Harmonic’s bonus material makes this an unexpected, if minor and very particular, pleasure. Try serving this campy retro buffet at your pad for your next psychedelic sex party, and you might be surprised at how well you get on. If nothing else, you’ll be one step closer to being like me.

CAPSULE: RETURN TO OZ (1985)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

PLOT: After being sent for experimental shock therapy, Dorothy Gale returns to Oz, where she meets new magical friends and enemies as she tries to save the Scarecrow from the clutches of the Nome King.

Still from Return to Oz (1985)

COMMENTS: Few people today realize that, after the smash success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and other writers continued the official Oz legacy for a couple dozen additional volumes). With so much material available, it’s a surprise that it took Hollywood almost fifty years to create a live-action1 sequel to 1939’s Oz blockbuster; had the original been made in today’s entertainment climate, we would be seeing a new Oz movie every year—at least.

The reasons for the delay had partly to do with rights to the originals being divided up between rival studios (MGM optioned the first book, Disney all the rest). By the 1980s, Disney’s rights to Baum’s works were about to lapse, so in 1985 they handed respected sound-editor-turned-first-time director Walter Murch the opportunity to create a sequel, based mainly on Baum’s third book, “Ozma of Oz,” but also incorporating parts of the immediate sequel “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and original ideas. The resulting movie was a box office flop, often criticized for being too “dark.” But children who saw it in theaters remembered it more fondly than their parents or contemporary critics did, turning Return into a minor cult film on video.

Encouraged by Murch’s own characterization of his work, the accepted wisdom that Return is “dark” is repeated like a mantra every time the film is brought up: often as a criticism or warning, but sometimes as a compliment or lure, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, while Return is indisputably scary, “dark” implies some kind of inappropriate moral perversity found nowhere in Oz. In the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faced a green-faced hag bent on revenge-killing both her and her lapdog, a magical best friend who’s nearly incinerated, and pursuit from nightmarish flying monkeys dressed as bellhops. These vintage horrors compare quite favorably to those found in Return—but just because no one periodically breaks out in lighthearted songs about missing vital organs, the later movie is forever branded as “dark,” while the earlier one is a beloved childhood classic. Return to Oz‘s half-rock Nome king is eerily brought to life through uncanny claymation, but he’s no darker than Margaret Hamilton’s cackling harridan. Return features bizarre creatures called the Wheelers, who dress like New Wave punks who would have been at home as extras in Liquid Sky but for the wheels grafted onto their hands and feet, who a slink about the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City. Scary, but then again, they’re not freaking flying monkeys.

The darkest element in Return is purely subtextual, and will go right over young ones’ heads: the primitive turn-of-the-century electroshock therapy to which Dorothy’s aunt and uncle subject the girl hoping to cure her of her yearnings for Oz (a procedure that ironically sparks her return to the fantasyland). The reference to barbaric mental health practices of olden times is indeed dark, but few kids would get why in 1985 (and even fewer in 2021). There is an even darker undercurrent, though. This plot device could be read as implying that Dorothy Gale isn’t just an innocent dreamer; in fact, she’s deeply mentally ill, and the land of Oz is her schizoid hallucination. But again, this twist just disturbs the older folks: kids accept Dorothy’s adventures at face value, and remain blissfully ignorant of the suggestion of juvenile insanity.

Return to Oz could never live up to the original movie; wisely, it doesn’t try to. It ditches the musical numbers, which would have inevitably disappointed. 9-year-old Fairuza Balk seems chosen as lead based solely on her jewel-like eyes; she’s no Judy Garland (and she’s confusingly younger than the Dorothy of Wizard), but she’ll do. When we finally see the updated Scarecrow, beloved Ray Bolger has been transformed into an animated puppet, and he’s… a little off. But Dorothy’s new cast of allies are mostly delightful: a talking chicken, roly-poly mechanical soldier Tik-Tok, childlike Jack Pumpkinhead, a moose head attached to a flying couch. So are the villains: evil Queen Mombi with her detachable heads, the severe and mostly-animated grey Nome King. After a slow start, in a full color Kansas, the movie morphs into a well-paced 80s children’s adventure tale, with thrilling escapes and despicable (if not quite “dark”) acts of villainy. It has that magical “Oz” spirit—minus the songs, which obviously wasn’t part of Baum’s original work—and it’s easy to see why those who first saw it as kids fell in love with it. A good fantasy for first time viewers, and great nostalgia for grown-ups.

Also, be sure to read Jesse Miksic‘s detailed analysis for this site, “The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”–Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

(This movie was first nominated for review by “ubik,” who said that it “was probably the movie that first gave me a taste for weird movies way back in the day.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Theodore Schaefer

FEATURING: Annie Parisse, Gus Birney, Constance Shulman

PLOT: A suburban mother and her son’s pregnant girlfriend take a surreal road trip to try to fix a financial mistake.

Still from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

COMMENTS: Diana is the matriarch of an average suburban family who’s made an embarassing mistake. Her husband Daryl hates his job and has dreams of opening a restaurant. Daughter Danielle is assisting in the school play. Son Andrew has a pregnant (though not with a butterfly) girlfriend, Marlene. Marlene’s mother is delusional, believing herself a famous but forgotten actress about to be rediscovered.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly starts out as a domestic drama, but one with a very dry sense of absurdity. Marlene reads off eye-catching headlines from a tabloid magazine: “Child Sings in the Womb,” “Dead Couple Wed at Their Funeral,” that sort of thing.  Diana’s co-workers have confusingly similar names and appearances. Characters drift into improbably poetic monologues. And Marlene’s mom is totally bonkers, a good excuse for the movie to cut loose from some of its subtlety. But although the dialogue is sometimes ridiculous, the dynamics between the characters are believable: Diana and Daryl share a low-grade, polite hostility. Dad wants to impose his dreams on the whole family. The children either try to defuse family tensions or are absorbed in their own worlds. Marlene, the reluctant interloper, wants to ingratiate herself into her boyfriend’s family.

In the beginning, at least, we learn more about Diana from her relations with others than from herself, which may be the key to her character. The first act sets up the characters. When Diana and Marlene embark on a journey, Diana slowly comes more into focus. When the pair arrive at the home of a couple of old ladies who are both spooky and wise, the movie launches into full surrealist mode, as Diana’s dreams become her reality.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a short movie, only 75 minutes long. But like a particularly dense poem, its brevity belies an entire world of thematic and intertextual references. The title is taken from a 1917 poem by Mina Loy (the relevant stanza of which is read over the credits) and there are references to Homer. The characters monologues are draped in metaphor. A number of motifs recur: naming people, twins, trains and journeys, damaged artworks. The dreamlike ending is not explicitly explained, but these themes give you a lot to think about. Enigma is the dominant tone. It’s an intelligent, and even poetic debut film from Theodore Schaefer, but it’s not always an engaging one. But its short runtime may make it worth a gamble if you find the idea of a Sundance-style dramedy with a surreal twist at the end appealing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dream-like experience with relatable themes, but the surrealist drama plays more like a philosophy lecture than a film. Feeling like a co-production between Kelly Reichardt and David Lynch, Schaefer’s directorial debut shows promise as a filmmaker, but the film never concretely comes together.”–Jon Medelsohn, CBR.com (festival screening)

Short promotional clip from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: HOTEL POSEIDON (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Stefan Lernous

FEATURING: Tom Vermeir, Anneke Sluiters

PLOT: The reluctant owner of a decrepit hotel deals with an incoherent nightmare of sultry guests, a sketchy pal who’s turning the ballroom into a happening nightclub, and a “sick” aunt.

Still from Hotel Poseidon (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Although it may be lacking in narrative, if a movie can be honored as one of the weirdest ever made based purely on art direction, Hotel Poseidon is a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: Hotel Poseidon is where you go if you die in Hotel Earle and your soul can’t find its way to Heaven. The building looks like it’s been underwater for fifty years and has only recently surfaced: the daily mail arrives already soaked and caked in mud, electrical fires are so frequent they’ve become only a minor annoyance, and the lobby is so cavernous that at first you don’t even notice the body tucked away in the corner. The visual sensibility is dingy, dirty and grungy, and you half expect to see a strand of seaweed fall across the lens every now and then. The Hotel is the main character, while lead actor Tom Vermeir, in the role of depressive and put-upon owner Dave, acts as its sad-sack sidekick. Hotel Poseidon is a crumbling edifice waiting for a movie worthy of its magnificent setting—a movie that, unfortunately, never arrives.

Though Hotel Poseidon doesn’t have much story to tell, it does feature two exhibitions of inspired camerawork to showcase its astonishing set. The first is the opening shot, a spiraling pan around the hotel lobby which starts on a dead fish in a half-empty tank and spins around to survey the room’s clutter of decrepit knickknacks, peeling wallpaper, dying plants, malfunctioning equipment, and unattended fires, giving you a sense of the purgatorial landscape you’ll be inhabiting for the next ninety minutes. The other lasts for about four minutes, as the camera weaves through Dave’s encounters with the pasty-faced grotesques attending some sort of prom of the living dead that’s broken out in his newly-renovated ballroom, a sequence that somehow involves him winding up on an autopsy table before escaping into the elevator; it’s the capper to a succession intricately-choreographed shots that comprise the central “party” sequence,  the film’s best segment (which could have been a winner as a standalone short film).

If this all sounds pretty weird to you, then you’re not wrong. Hotel Poseidon trends towards a “” tag. And, in terms of art direction and cinematography, the movie is far above normal standards. Unfortunately, it succumbs to a common ailment afflicting full-length surrealist features: a failure to provide a meaningful plot structure, thematic tissue, or characters we are capable of empathizing with. There is no real story, and the few recurring subplots—a sexy young visitor who insists on renting a room despite being told the hotel is permanently closed, Dave’s ailing aunt and her pension—-circle a clogged drain for ninety minutes before the film ends up back where it started. Hotel Poseidon is simply a long succession of unsettling scenes in a common setting, many of which work on an individual level, but fail to build upon each other, leading only to a downbeat experience that’s too one-note to support the film’s length. Hotel Poseidon is the first film venture financed by the Belgian avant-garde theater company Abbatoir Fermé, and there there is great talent involved; but the technique and atmosphere languish because the film doesn’t give us much reason to care what happens to its characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a celebration of the weird, the absurd and the surreal, constantly adding new layers of wonder, forcing its audience to sit back in submission and let the film wash over them.”–Niels Matthijs, Onderhond (festival screening)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: AGNES (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Molly C. Quinn, , , Hayley McFarland, Sean Gunn

PLOT: A demon possesses a sister at a conservative Carmelite nunnery, causing a crisis of faith for one of the nuns.

Still from Agnes (2021)

COMMENTS: Perhaps it would be better to go into Agnes knowing nothing about it beforehand; I won’t give major spoilers, but if you’d prefer to be surprised, stop reading now. OK, for the rest of you, all I will really say is: be prepared for a drastic tonal shift around the middle of the film. Agnes‘ most important characters will not be those you initially assume, and some questions may go unanswered. What appears to be a rambunctious exorcism spoof evolves into something far more thoughtful. Agnes gets crazier and crazier, then gets less and less crazy, until it ends on a note of pure emotional earnestness. Although it flows from a single incident, the film is split into two parts; this procedure will frustrate some. But I found looking at the connections between the two halves, and thinking of reasons why the material might be handled with such stylistic polarity, to be a fascinating exercise.

With that said, I think it’s safer to describe the film’s “fun” first half, and leave the viewer to experience the more serious back nine on their own—except to advise you to stick with it all the way to the final scene. The first thing to note is that, although it plays its humor pretty close to the vest, Agnes is never really a scary demonic possession movie; it’s a comic take on the genre. The Church here is so riddled with clichés—hints of pedophilia, scheming monsignors concerned with public relations, an institution embarrassed by its own exorcism rites, a crusty old priest undergoing a crisis of faith contrasted with a pious young initiate, a sexually repressed nunnery—-that Agnes could almost function as a satire of movies about Catholicism. Then there are the plentiful campy bits sprinkled throughout: too-thick horror music cues at inappropriate times. An action-movie style montage of determined priests and nuns marching to exorcism. A nun named Sister Honey (!) It all seems to be heading into territory with a renegade cowboy priest who comes complete with a chain-smoking groupie in a beehive hairdo and too much bronzer. And then… well, I leave it for you to discover the rest for yourself.

Agnes is so unique, I can’t really decide if it’s firmly within the weird genre, or not. The film’s hemispheres are aimed at different audiences: the first half at a savvy genre crowd, the second at the arthouse set. It will probably appeal most to those with a religious mindset. I don’t mean people of any particular faith—I believe atheists can get as much out of it as devout Christians—but people who are concerned with and interested in the questions that religion seeks to address, questions about meaning and suffering. Seen in that light, the movie’s movement from ironic caricature to clear-headed sincerity feels like a legitimate spiritual journey. Agnes is justified by faith.

Giles Edwards adds: Agnes makes a promise to go full Ken Russell on the viewer, as Greg remarks. Of particular note is the rogue exorcist, one of those mystifying characters that I hope is based on a real-life person, but is more likely a bold combination of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart. The sleek cinematographical maneuverings of the first act could have built into something wonderfully nuthouse, but the thrill of exploitation gets cut off at the bite of the face and an almost mystical exhalation of smoke. The second act—very nearly its own second movie—is slowly paced, and dwells on kitchen-table dramatic musings of identity, financial solvency, and relationship power dynamics. The bombast of the foundation kept me on the edge of a chuckle throughout, with its repressed mother superior, sketchy-swain mentor priest, and the excommunicated demon specialist; the melodrama built on that foundation wasn’t nearly as entertaining in my view, but it was much more respectable as a cinematic outing. It’s as if the director had designed a bondage fun-house basement and felt oddly compelled to hide it from the world with a factory line split-level ranch above ground level.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as specific as it is almost uncategorizable… while the first half of Agnes takes place in the hermetic, often bizarrely humorous world of the convent, it’s the second half that gives the film its resonance.”–Matt Lynch, In Review Online (festival screening)