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.

ARTSPLOITATION – THE BASTARD OFFSPRING OF “BLOOD OF A POET” AND “SEX MANIAC”

Every knows what “exploitation” films are: films that deliberately appeal to audiences baser nature, and try to lure in viewers with the promise of sex, nudity, violence, and moral degeneracy.

When a film tries to appeal to an audience’s higher nature, to their intellect and aesthetic sense, but at the same time promises plenty of sex, nudity, violence, and moral degeneracy, then you have an “artsploitation” film.

Not all art films which deal with sex or include nudity or violence qualify as artsploitation films.  There needs to be some gratuitous or sensationalist element to merit the “-ploitation” suffix.  There’s little truly exploitative about the way sex is treated in Sex and Lucia, for example; sex is a natural part of the character’s relationship and there are good plot and thematic justifications for each coupling.

Although the “artsploitation” genre can’t be reduced to a simple recipe, and does not necessarily involve remaking some sort of recognized formula film in an arty way, as a first step at identifying the category, here’s a short list of some art films that also fit neatly into a recognized exploitation film sub-genre:

  • EL TOPO (1970) = arthouse + Spaghetti Western
  • THE DEVILS (1971) = arthouse + nunsploitation
  • LIQUID SKY (1982) = arthouse + science fiction
  • GOTHIC (1986) = arthouse + horror
  • LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988) = arthouse + horror
  • SANTA SANGRE (1989) = arthouse + serial killers
  • THE THIEF, THE COOK, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)= arthouse + gross-out cannibal film
  • DELLAMORTE, DELLAMORE [CEMETARY MAN] (1994) = arthouse + zombie film
  • KIDS (1995) = arthouse + juvenile delinquency
  • NOWHERE (1997) = arthouse + juvenile delinquency + drugsploitation + sci-fi B-movie

Another simple way to identify an artsploitation film: look for the name “Ken Russell” under director.

Exploitation films, which used to play at drive-ins, fleapits and grindhouses, and are now often released directly to video, are considered “trash cinema,” and distinguishable both from mainstream films and from art-house films.  They began as early as the 1930s, when Hollywood’s Hays Code created a lucrative gray market for films dealing with forbidden subject matter like prostitution, drug abuse, and revenge killings.  Cheaply made films such as Reefer Madness [Tell Your Children] (1936) (the famously campy anti-marijuana flick), Child Bride (1938) (which dealt with the “serious” problem of child marriage among hillbillies by having a 12 year old girl perform nude scenes), and Mom and Dad (1945) (which advertised itself as a “hygiene” film and showed the birth of an illegitimate baby in graphic, gaping detail) quickly stepped in to take advantage of Hollywood’s shyness about sex.  An alternative, parallel cinema of forbidden delights Continue reading ARTSPLOITATION – THE BASTARD OFFSPRING OF “BLOOD OF A POET” AND “SEX MANIAC”

BORDERLINE WEIRD: NOWHERE (1997)

DIRECTED BY:  Gregg Araki

FEATURING: James Duval, Rachel True

PLOT:  Shallow L.A. teenagers take drugs and have kinky sex all day in preparation for the party of the year, while a rubber alien reptile occasionally stalks and abducts them.

nowhere

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  As an attempt at a contemporary update of Repo Man by way of Clueless, Nowhere is weird, but only in the most superficial way possible; ultimately, it lacks the emotional and thematic chops to earn itself a more dignified adjective than “silly” (although less dignified adjectives like “self-indulgent,” “pretentious” and “annoying” do spring to mind).

COMMENTS:  It begins with the portentous pronouncement “L.A. is like… nowhere.  Everyone who lives here is lost,” voiced with emotionless fervor by “Dark” (Keanu Reeves impersonator James Duval) as he masturbates in the shower.  (This should be your first hint that you might want to skip this movie: do you really want to spend 82 minutes watching an inferior version of Keanu Reeves?)  In the course of a day, the film introduces us to such lost characters as bulimiacs, drug addicts, vanishing valley girls, a “Baywatch” hunk/rapist, and teen dominatrices, all of whom are at bottom indistinguishable but for their preferences in body piercings.  Their chief defining characteristic is a lack of character.  What little character development there is involves Dark’s doomed search for true love and his fruitless attempts to convince bisexual gal pal Mel (Rachel True) to stop sharing her nubile body with every Tom, Dick and Mary.  Too occasional chuckles come via the vulgar and exaggerated teen slang. (A three way cameo conversation between val-gals Traci Lords, Shannen Doherty and Rose McGowan about potential beaus to take to the big party who are not gay, dead by their own hand, or under-hung is an engagingly braindead highlight).  Any lighthearted satirical momentum the film may muster, however, is destroyed by the intrusion of ugly realities like date rape and teen suicide that belong in a non-joke movie that would treat these topics with respect.  Writer/director Akari aims his wit at an incredibly easy target—vapid Hollywood teenagers—but he hardly appears less shallow than they are; whenever the script veers dangerously near something that looks like a real human emotion, as in the climax, he’s quick to deploy predictable Gen-X irony to turn the scene into an absurd joke before his skill at eliciting genuine empathy can be tested.

The teens’ irresponsible “empty” hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, partying, and humping hot bodies actually looks pretty appealing, if only the company didn’t totally blow.  The flick may be enjoyed by smart teenagers (even though director Araki seems to have nothing but contempt for teens), but impressionable young minds should be steered towards better adolescent angst comedies like Heathers if it at all possible.  Not currently available on DVD in North America.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This live-action cartoon might be described as a surreal ‘American Graffiti’ crossed with a kinky ‘Beverly Hills 90210,’ as imagined by a punked-out acolyte of John Waters or Andy Warhol…  If it weren’t so overpopulated and desperate to shock, ‘Nowhere’ might have succeeded as a maliciously cheery satire of Hollywood brats overdosing on the very concept of Hollywood.”–Steven Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

QUIRKY, NOT WEIRD

“Quirky” can be defined as “full of quirks.”  A “quirk”  is “a strange attitude or habit” (synonyms: oddity, queerness, crotchet).

In the late 1980s to early 1990s, about the time of the rise of the Sundance Festival, “serious” (as opposed to exploitation-style) independent films exploded in the United States.  “Quirky” comedies quickly became a staple of independent movies and low budget movie festivals.  These films had light tones but serious, life-affirming themes, were witty and gently wry (but never ruined the mood by going so far as to be biting), and were filled to the brim with eccentric characters.  The fast-developing sub-genre became a darling of film critics.

One of the first quirky comedies was the early Coen brothers effort, Raising Arizona (1987).  Holly Hunter played an infertile cop with a male name (“Ed”) who falls in love with peaceful burglar Nicolas Cage, who also has an odd name (“Hi”) and occasionally speaks in Shakespearean dialogue.  These characters were highly eccentric but essentially harmless, and although the movie was actually a little bit weird (with Tex Cobb as a mystical biker/bounty hunter with supernatural abilities that surpassed the merely quirky), once the Coen’s more bizarre proclivities were snipped away, Raising Arizona served as a template for quirky movies to follow.  (That quirky and weird can still coexist in the same movie was proven by Chan-wook Park’s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK [2006], though notably it took an outsider to the American independent film tradition to pull it off.)

The first movie I think of when I think of the modern quirky formula is Baghdad Cafe (1987).  It’s an exemplary cast of quirks: a stranded German housfrau who does magic tricks, a sassy and irritable black woman, an Indian short-order cook, a tattoist, Jack Palance as a retired Hollywood set painter.  It’s set in the desert, the quintessentially quirky locale.  It’s light (real danger never raises its head) and life-affirming (in the end the characters learn and grow from each others’ diametrically opposed quirks).

Other movies that clearly fall into the quirky genre are Roadside Prophets (1992), Benny & Joon (1993), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Clerks (1994) (a bit more profane and piquant than typical quirk), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), the recently reviewed Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), and of course, anything by the reigning King Continue reading QUIRKY, NOT WEIRD

21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

“I think it is a film fantastique in a way… a film fantastique can have almost anything in it, it’s based on facts but it can take flights of fancy which are still rooted to the truth, to the reality of the story, so the imagination can roam.”–Robin Hardy

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Robin Hardy

FEATURING:  Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland,

PLOT:  A devout Christian policeman flies to the isolated island of Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate a report of a missing girl.  When he gets there, everyone denies knowledge of the girl, but he notices with increasing disgust that the entire island is practicing old pagan rituals and licentious sex.  As his investigation continues, he uncovers evidence suggesting that the missing girl was a resident of the island, and may have met a horrible fate.

the_wicker_man_1973

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer was a hot property in 1973 after adapting his own successful mystery play Sleuth into a 1972 hit movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and penning the screenplay for Frenzy (1972) for Alfred Hitchcock.  His clout was so great that this film was released under the official title Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man.  He later adapted Agatha Christie novels such as Murder on the Orient Express (1974) for the big screen.
  • Director Robin Hardy, despite doing an excellent job on this film, did not direct a feature film again until 1986’s Wicker Man variation, The Fantasist.
  • Christopher Lee, who had just come to the end of his run as Hammer’s Dracula, donated his acting services to the production.  He was quoted in 1977 as saying, “It’s the best part I’ve ever had.  Unquestionably.”
  • The “wicker man” was a historically accurate feature of Druidic religions that was first described to the world by Julius Caesar in his “Commentary on the Gallic Wars.”
  • In Britain the film was released on the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now, perhaps the most impressive psychological horror double feature in history.
  • Shaffer and Hardy published a novelization of the film in 1976.
  • “Cinefastique” devoted an entire 1977 issue to the film, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.”
  • In 2001, an additional 12 minutes of deleted scenes were added to create a “Director’s Cut” version.
  • Some of the original footage is believed to be lost forever, including part of the scene where Sgt. Howie first meets Lord Summerisle.  The original negative was accidentally thrown away when original producer British Lion Films went under and cleaned out its vaults.
  • The climax was voted #45 in Bravo’s list of the “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The 2006 Neil LaBute remake starring Nicolas Cage had as little as possible to do with the original story, was universally reviled, and was even accused of being misogynistic.  Some argue that it is so poorly conceived and made that it has significant camp value.
  • Hardy released a “spiritual sequel,” The Wicker Tree, in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The wicker man itself (although, for those of a certain gender, Britt Ekland’s nude dance may be even harder to forget).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Hardy and Shaffer create an atmosphere like no other; it’s an encounter of civilized man with strange, primeval beliefs.  Select scenes are subtly surreal—observe how the villagers break into an impossibly well-choreographed bawdy song about the innkeeper’s daughter preternaturally designed to discomfit their sexually repressed guest.  Other weird incidents are more outrageously in the viewer’s face: the vision of a woman breastfeeding a child in a graveyard while delicately holding an egg in her outstretched hand.  Almost invisible details such as the children’s lessons scribbled on the classroom blackboard (“the toadstone protects the newly born from the weird woman”) saturate the film and reveal how painstakingly its makers constructed a haunting alternate world of simultaneously fascinating and repulsive pagan beliefs.  The rituals Sergeant Howie witnesses don’t always make sense (and when they do, their significance is repulsive to him), but they tap into a deep, buried vein of myth.  The viewer himself undergoes a dread confrontation with Old Gods who are at the same time familiar and terrifyingly strange.

Original trailer for The Wicker Man

COMMENTS: CONFESSION: The version reviewed here–horrors!–is the 88 minute theatrical Continue reading 21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SEX AND LUCIA [LUCIA Y EL SEXO] (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Julio Medem

FEATURING: Paz Vega, Tristán Ulloa, Najwa Nimri

PLOT:  Lucia, a waitress, falls in love with Lorenzo, a young novelist with a secret in his

sex_and_lucia

past; their passionate love story is intertwined with dramatized scenes from Lorenzo’s novel, with it left to the viewer to decide what is “real” and what is “fiction.” 


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSex and Lucia‘s fractured narrative is more confusing than weird.  It’s meta-narrative conceits call to mind Adaptation, another movie that ultimately felt too much like an intellectual exercise to be extremely weird. Sex and Lucia treats it’s fiction-within-a-fiction structure with more subtlety and ambiguity, though Charlie Kauffman’s screenplay exists on a satirical plane that in the end makes it the more centered and satisfying effort.

COMMENTS:  The best things about Sex and Lucia are sex (important enough to get its own paragraph!) and Lucia (Paz Vega, whose acting is as naked as her body). While counting its plusses, we should also mention the cinematography, done on a digital camera, with the scenes on the Mediterranean isle bleached like a seashell in the sun.  The story is another matter.  Many viewers find it frustrating that Medem riddles his script with narrative wormholes which shuttle the story back in time or to an alternate resolution, then demands the viewer assist in the construction by choosing what is part of the “real” story and what is in Lorenzo’s imagination. The bigger problem may be that none of the possibilities he offers have a tremendous emotional resonance.  The movie is arty and self-conscious throughout, with multiple obviously significant shots of the moon. Symbolism is pervasive and tends to make sense, but adds up to little in the way of genuine insight.  While these difficulties make Sex and Lucia less than it might have been, it’s still beautiful enough to be lightly intoxicating, like a Mediterranean vacation or a one-nighter with a beautiful woman.

The sex scenes, especially those between the gorgeous and unselfconscious Vega and Ulloa, are undoubtedly a major attraction.  The lovers’ exploration of their bodies and sexual tastes during their whirlwind courtship is erotic and tasteful; the scenes are arousing, but are also beautifully constructed to create a sense of true intimacy between the characters.  The sex is front-loaded; after the middle of the film, when a sordid and pornographic but equally erotic fantasy occurs, sex leaves Lucia and Lorenzo’s relationship, replaced by tragedy and arguments.  Medem refused to let the sexier parts of the film be cut for distribution, but the scenes of tumescent male nudity and fellatio are so brief that they are unnecessary and reek of gimmickry; it’s difficult to rationalize the director’s passionate defense of the artistic necessity of erections.  The film may be purchased in either a unrated cut or in an R-rated version; your enjoyment of the movie is unlikely to be affected by which version you choose (I can’t determine if there’s a difference in runtime between the two versions).   

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At its best, Sex and Lucia works literally like a dream, like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away — the narrative is fractured and oblique, the meaning suppressed. It will infuriate a lot of moviegoers, perhaps especially those looking for a high class dirty movie.”–Phillip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (DVD)

20. GUMMO (1997)

“When I saw a piece of fried bacon fixed to the bathroom wall in Gummo, it knocked me off my chair.”–Werner Herzog

DIRECTED BY: Harmony Korine

FEATURING: Chloë Sevigny, Jacob Reynolds, non-professionals chosen for their freakish looks

PLOT:  A tornado devastated the town of Xenia, Ohio in the 1970s.  Twenty years later, a teenager (Tummler) and a younger tagalong (Solomon) hunt feral cats, selling them to the local grocer for money they use to buy sniffing glue and trysts with a fat, mentally disabled prostitute.  Meanwhile, other white-trash characters roam the landscape unsupervised, including two trashy teen girls who seem to be raising their kid sister and a shirtless mute boy who wears pink bunny ears.

gummo

BACKGROUND:

  • Harmony Korine (who is male) had previously written script for Kids (1995).  He was given $1.5 million and free reign by Fine Line Features (the now-defunct “independent” branch of New Line Pictures) to create exactly the picture he wanted to.
  • A devastating tornado really did hit Xenia, OH in 1974.
  • Gummo was the fifth Marx brother, who left the group before they began their successful film career.
  • Although critical reaction was largely negative (scoring a disappointing 29% on Rotten Tomatoes tomatomer at press time), several established directors—Werner Herzog, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Gus Van Sant, and Erol Morris—expressed admiration and support for the picture.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  No one forgets the scene of Solomon eating spaghetti and chocolate in the grimy bathtub with oily green water (with, as Werner Herzog marveled, bacon taped to the walls).  The most illustrative image, however, may be when “Bunny Boy” (the shirtless waif wearing pink bunny ears) thrusts a dead cat at the camera.  This vision brings to mind the act of this director presenting this work to his audience.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDGummo looks a lot like what might result if someone took home movies from that embarrassing, welfare-addicted branch of the family no one likes to talk about and mixed them in a blender with the final project short films from the NYU Film School graduating class of ’97.

Brief clip from Gummo

COMMENTS: Gummo is an exasperating film that compels the viewer mainly through the odd Continue reading 20. GUMMO (1997)

CAPSULE: WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Goran Dukic

FEATURING: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits

PLOT:  In a special afterlife reserved for suicides, three lost souls hit the road: Zia is

wristcutters_a_love_story

searching for his earthly lover, Mikal is convinced she’s here by mistake and is looking for the People in Charge, and Eugene is along for the ride because he has nothing better to do.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the sunglasses-snatching black hole that’s taken up permanent residence under the passenger seat in Eugene’s old beater, Wristcutters never really crosses the shaky border into the land of the weird.  A few magical realist touches decorate this otherwise conventional, indie-flavored road movie/love triangle that’s best described as “quirky.”  (If you know of a review that doesn’t use the word “quirky” to describe this movie, please contact the proper authorities; the writer needs to have his or her critical credentials yanked).

COMMENTS:  Adapted from a story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters is a romantic comedy disguised as a black comedy, a conventional movie disguised as a bizarre movie, and a shamelessly hopeful movie disguised as a bleak movie.  None of those disguises are particularly hard to penetrate.  “Who could think of a better punishment, really?  Everything’s the same here, it’s just a little worse,” newly deceased wristcutter Zia realizes soon after he gets a pizza delivery job in the afterlife.  In Wristcutters, new suicides wake to discover a Great Beyond that’s not so great: in fact, it’s set in the middle of the Mojave desert where everything is so run down and recycled, even the automobiles are held together mostly by duct tape.  Furthermore, in the most dreadful dissimilarity to the living world, its denizens find themselves unable to smile, a restriction that makes the sympathetic performances of the young principals all the more impressive.  Still, the movie always has a hopeful sense that the main characters can find a way out of their existential predicament, and it doesn’t disappoint those hoping for a happy ending (though some may consider it a cop-out).  Although Wristcutters sometimes reeks of missed opportunities to explore deeper themes and blacker comedy in a more mystical landscape, it’s also apparent that director/scripter Dukic has hit exactly the lightly offbeat tone he was aiming for, and he has the good sense to wrap the story up quickly after his world runs out of new Purgatorial quirks to offer.  A couple of tunes by Tom Waits (who also offers up a memorable turn as ramshackle but wizardly guiding spirit Kneller) and Gogol Bordello bump up the cool quotient considerably.

After this successful debut, Croatian director Dukic is poised between worlds: he could use this feature as springboard to do something even more conventional, or push his offbeat impulses to their logically weird conclusion.  We’ll keep an eye on him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What makes it work is that the performers, trapped in a weird movie about a weird place, underplay their astonishment.”–A.O. Scott, New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Natalia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Jim Mallon

FEATURING: Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy

PLOT:  In this feature film from the cult TV show, a man and his two robot companions are trapped in space, forced by mad scientist Dr. Forrester to watch some of the worst movies of all time with only their own witty comments to distract them from the onslaught of ineptitude; in this experiment, they tackle the not-so-bad sci-fi film This Island Earth, in which aliens with bulging craniums kidnap Earth scientists in hopes of rescuing their home planet.

mystery_science_theater_3000_the_movie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K for short) was a fun, hip little cable TV show that ran from 1988 to 1999 wherein a man and his robots provided a humorous running commentary on old B-movies (many, like Horrors of Spider Island, of the so-bad-it’s-weird variety).  Although the concept sounds strange, the smart and often very obscure pop-culture and other references that became the show’s comic staple made it more nerdy (in the complimentary sense) than weird in execution.  Most of the movies featured were dull and incompetent rather than bizarre, and when they got their hands on something truly deranged (like The Wild World of Batwoman) the derision heaped on it by the commentators brought the absurdity to the surface and defused it.  Not that this was a bad thing; it’s a devilishly funny exercise, if you’re tuned into the show’s arch sense of humor, but it’s not weird.

COMMENTSMystery Science Theater: The Movie is essentially “MST3K for Dummies.”  It’s a nice lightweight litmus test for neophytes to see if they enjoy the style of humor on display and wish to penetrate deeper into the MST3K corpus (many original episodes are currently released on DVD; the double-disc The Essentials, featuring Manos: The Hands of Fate and Santa Claus Versus the Martians, is probably the best place to start). Distributors Gramercy Pictures were concerned that the “riffing” style of the TV show, which was filled with esoterica and in-jokes, might alienate newcomers to the series.  Therefore, no references to Kierkegard, Bud Powell or “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” make it into The Movie.  For the most part, Mike, Crow and Tom confine their wisecracks to literal commentary about what’s onscreen: when a mutant hoves into frame, Mike astutely observes that he appears to be wearing slacks, while Tom and Crow quip that the matte painting depicting the alien landscape looks like the planet was designed either by Dr. Seuss or by someone painting a Yes album cover.  The wisecracks come at the show’s typical breakneck pace, averaging perhaps three or four a minute, so there’s probably something here to tickle everyone’s funnybone. Still, the writers seem slightly out of their element in this outing: some of the bits seem too carefully scripted, and they grind out a couple of sex jokes and four letter words just to keep the film from getting a dreaded “G” rating.  After test audiences unfamiliar with the show squirmed a bit at its length, the entire movie (“host sequences” and all) was cut to a mere 75 minutes at Gramercy’s insistence: by comparison, an average episode of the TV series averaged 90 minutes and the unedited (and more coherent) version of This Island Earth ran 86 minutes! [UPDATE 9/3/2013: Shout! Factory’s 2013 release includes the deleted scenes as extras, along with an alternate ending]..

A lot of the critical and fan debate at the time of release revolved around the selection of This Island Earth as the feature film to be mocked.  This Island Earth was well-reviewed on its original release, and although the special effects are far from cutting edge today, many still consider it a minor gem.  It’s neither one of the worst of all time nor any sort of real classic, but it isn’t half bad, a fact which the cast seems to acknowledge when the evil Dr. Forrester checks in at the end to see if the movie has broken Mike’s will and finds his unfazed guinea pig and the ‘bots throwing a “Metaluna mixer” instead.  Despite it’s lack of acute badness (truly taxing schlock would have really alienated test audiences), the sci-fi potboiler was a reasonable choice for this particular venture.  There’s a scientific naïveté to the film that lends itself to gentle mockery (“increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around,” advises Crow at one point). More importantly, although the big-headed aliens, flying saucers and mutants with exposed brains look silly today, This Island Earth is still a beautiful looking Technicolor film, with its majestic, unreal pale-blue meteorite explosions and gleaming Space Age gizmos. Looking at the film today is like looking at well-crafted vintage comic book panels from the 1950s, and the visual inventiveness of the film provides a constantly pleasant backdrop to gaze at whenever neither the film’s plot nor the ‘bots quips are quite clicking. A few established critics seemed to accept the movie’s premise that This Island Earth was one of the worst films ever made.  In the context of its time, it’s no worse than the brainless sci-fi thrills of Independence Day were to 1996 audiences, and it’s easily miles above Gramercy’s other big release of the year, the Pamela Anderson misfire Barb Wire.  One wonders what the critics who thought This Island Earth was worthy of such derision would have made of some of the TV show’s more daring experiments in cinematic dreck, such as Monster a Go-Go or Manos?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The idea behind what must surely be among the most extreme examples of TV post-modernism is as warped as the concept of a robot made of junk parts observing bad sci-fi and critiquing his man-made relatives…  ‘This Island Earth’ is so bizarrely bad that it’s utterly remarkable. When the comments from Nelson and the robots fall flat, the movie’s own wretchedness takes over.”–Barry Walters, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VIY [Вий] (1967)

Must See

AKA Viy, Spirit of Evil; Vij

DIRECTED BY:  Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov

FEATURING: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley

PLOT:  In medieval Ukraine, a seminarian must spend three nights praying over the

viy

corpse of a witch.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This faithful adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story is a classic of world horror, deserving a place alongside the quintessential Universal fright films.  Like the works of Gogol’s contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, Viy may have been regarded as a “weird” tale on its original publication, but today it seems a relatively straightforward ghost story, demonstrating how what was once weird may be subsumed into the mainstream over time.  It’s still unconditionally recommended, especially for fans of sublime supernatural horror storytelling that relies on atmosphere and foreboding rather than blood and guts.

COMMENTS: Viy is an unusual and exotic experience for Western viewers, for whom witches are not the prototypical supernatural villain, but most will quickly feel comfortable inside the film’s recognizable folk tale structure.  The story is impeccably told; Kuravlyov’s seminarian, who begins with a mischievous frat-boy brashness but ends up bullied and harried by both Cossacks and witches, is an eminently fallible but very likable comic-turned-tragic hero.  Varley’s nameless and mostly mute witch is eerily pretty, and manages to create a tremendous sense of menace simply by grasping blindly at the seminarian while he’s hidden from her view inside the holy circle he has drawn on the chapel floor with chalk.  The special effects aren’t always seamless (although you may wonder how some were achieved), but they are always artful and elegant, and their artificiality is an asset, creating a universe that’s far more otherworldly than it otherwise might be.  (Think of the difference between Willis O’Brien’s dreamlike and iconic stop-motion animated King Kong and Peter Jackson’s photorealistic but forgettable ape).  The gibbering gray demons that threaten to swarm over the hero in the exhilarating climax are as unforgettable an assortment of ogres as you are likely to see on film.

Mario Bava’s classic Black Sunday [La Maschera del Demonio] [1960] was also inspired by Viy, but that story veers so far from Gogol’s tale it can hardly be considered an adaptation.  Foolishly, a Russian remake of Viy is currently in the works.  The original was done perfectly, and CGI graphics cannot improve upon the stylish charm of the 1967 production.  The Russico DVD contains abundant extras, including lengthy excerpts from three silent Russian horror films: Queen of Spades, Satan Exultant, and The Portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically a folk tale at heart, this adaptation by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov follows the main story beats, but it’s completely schizophrenic in balancing satire, low humour, and horror… Karen Khachaturyan’s score is equally uneven, although he may have been following the filmmakers’ weird blend of comedy and horror.”–KQEK.com

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Natalia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Daniel Barnz

FEATURING:  Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman,

PLOT:  Adorable, precocious and angst-ridden Phoebe (Fanning) has a psychological

Still from Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

disorder that makes her spit on her classmates and occasionally talk to the Red Queen, among other misbehaviors; she uses her role in the school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” as self-therapy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A few very brief and inorganic Alice in Wonderland hallucinations do not a weird movie make.  (In the film’s defense, it’s not trying to be weird, at all).

COMMENTSPhoebe in Wonderland is definitely an actor’s movie.  While the plot introduces us to some interesting, quirky characters—enigmatic drama-school weirdo and free-spirit Miss Dodger; conflicted mom Hilary, who loves her child dearly while resenting the fact that caring for her has overtaken her life; and of course Phoebe, who desperately wants to be a normal but can’t control her need to ritualistically hop on each stair in a correct order that exists only in her mind—it resolves itself in a disappointing Lifetime-network-feel-good-tearjerker-of-the-week fashion, with only the briefest of detours into Wonderland.  Fortunately, Dakota’s little sis Elle turns out to be every bit the actor her older sibling is, and carries the film on her tiny shoulders, with the adult veterans doing their part to keep up with her.  She evokes a heartbreaking pathos in her desire and inability to be the good little girl her parents can be proud of and her peers accept.  The visions of Wonderland she sometimes sees aren’t magically staged, and in fact make little literal sense: whatever Phoebe’s psychological issues might be, she’s no schizophrenic.  Only once does the intrusion of Alice’s world inside Phoebe’s mind work or make much plot sense: when she sees the rabbit hole yawning in front of her (it’s also the best looking of the fantasy sequences, which are mostly pedestrian and effects-free).  With that single exception, the script should have kept itself firmly on this side of the looking glass.

We go to independent films hoping to see something different than the twenty formula Hollywood movies that are permitted to dominate the United States’ 38,000 movie screens each week.  It’s disappointing to find that, when an independent film does manage to break the major studio stranglehold and get a small release, it turns out to be pretty much the kind of fare Hollywood would have released anyway, if they’d had extra room for another April drama.  Phoebe in Wonderland is just as good as any product released to the cineplexes, perhaps even a cut above in the acting department, but we have to wonder: don’t we deserve at least one screen per metropolitan area dedicated to showing something off the beaten path?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ‘Wonderland’ motif, which could be a really cool framework for the story, is little more than a sparse reference point, and Phoebe’s occasional dalliances in the surreal are more disruptive than not.”–Jamie Tipps, Film Threat