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.

CAPSULE: EX DRUMMER (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Koen Mortier

FEATURING: Dries Van Hegen, Norman Baert, Gunter Lamoot, Sam Louwyck

PLOT: A writer agrees to become the drummer for a band formed by trio of handicapped lowlifes to win a Belgian battle of the bands; he ends up manipulating them into destruction.Still from Ex Drummer (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With it’s inverted skinhead and brief tour of a ravaged vagina, Ex Drummer is definitely weird; the problem is, it’s so unpleasant, pretentious, tedious and nihilistic that the oppressive atmosphere makes the viewer desperate to escape the movie.

COMMENTS: There are many possible interpretations of Ex Drummer—for one, the script at times implies it is a vague meditation on “personal sadness”—but the most honest explanation of what the film is comes from writer Dries’ confession when he agrees to join “The Feminists” as their celebrity drummer: “I want to step outside my happy world. Descend into the depths of stupidity, ugliness, obtuseness, unfaithfulness… Latch onto the life of losers, but without belonging to that world and in the knowledge that I can always return to my own world.” In other words, it’s moral tourism among the disadvantaged: the underclasses do the craziest things, like constantly rape each other and neglect their children until the tykes chomp down on excrement from hunger. Who wouldn’t want to enter such a world for ninety minutes, aside from most film-goers? Besides the drummer, the blackguard band’s principals are an abusive deaf guitarist, a gay rhythm guitarist with a stiff arm from an accident incurred when he was caught masturbating as a teen, and a misogynist skinhead singer with a lisp. Upper-class, educated Dries’ turns out to be the worst scoundrel of all, callously manipulating and scripting these mooncalves into cruel ends for his own amusement. True, the film can be very weird (gravity works backwards in the skinhead’s flat, where toothpaste and blood flow towards the roof), but the weirdness sits uneasily: the director seems to view unreality as just another form of ugliness to be savored. As a black comedy, more comedy and less black would have been greatly appreciated. First time feature director Mortier has a few interesting ideas and shots, such as an extended early sequence where the film unspools in reverse as the band bicycles backwards from Dries’ flat into their own backstories. But the pity is that the main memories we take home from Ex Drummer aren’t these few moments of inspiration; rather, there’s an impression that most of the movie was full of endlessly padded scenes of the band squabbling among itself or fighting other bands or organizers, hurling epithets and fists whenever anyone perceives the slightest slight to their egos. Since there are no characters anywhere in the film to root for, we have no reason to care who wins the battle of the bands. After that contest’s decided, there’s really nothing left for the movie to accomplish, but it presses on for another distasteful fifteen minutes, because having nothing to say or do has never stopped it before. Ex Drummer‘s attempts to forge nihilistic poetry from the lives of pariahs has gained it critical comparisons to Trainspotting; these are off, because Danny Boyle’s movie was about real people, and never indulged in such undisguised contempt for its characters. A more apt comparison is that Ex Drummer is a Belgian Gummo, with Eurotrash substituting for poor white trash, and even more shameless and self-aware gawking at the freaky antics of the disadvantaged.

On the plus side, the aggressive punk/metal soundtrack (with a few mellower indie rock numbers strategically inserted for a much needed change of pace) is actually pretty good, and likely the real reason for the film’s cult following. If you’re a fan of this type of music you’ll probably be much more forgiving of this movie, which could at times be described as an extended, uncensored, and rather pretentious music video.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bizarre, horribly violent and frequently brilliant black comedy from Belgium: a melange of Irrevérsible, Clockwork Orange, Man Bites Dog and This Is Spinal Tap.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)

AKA Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

FEATURING: Alan Cox, Nicholas Rowe, Sophie Ward

PLOT: Young Watson meets prodigy schoolboy Sherlock at a British boarding school; together with Holmes’ girlfriend, they solve a mysterious rash of bizarre murders plaguing London.

Still from Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Noteworthy for some dark and intense hallucinatory scenes, but basically it’s a rollicking Spielberg-produced action-adventure a la the Indiana Jones series.

COMMENTS: Directed by Barry Levinson but bearing executive producer Steven Spielberg’s stamp all over it (much like “Tobe Hooper” ‘s 1982 Poltergeist), Young Sherlock Holmes was an unexpected box office flop in 1985, but has since garnered a minor cult film reputation among nostalgic post-boomers. There are a few exhibitions of Holmesian deduction in the early reels to establish the prodigal intelligence of the adolescent Holmes, but the main mystery, involving an ancient Egyptian cult in Victorian London, isn’t quite up to Arthur Conan Doyle’s intricate standards. The reason to watch it is for the special effects in the fanciful hallucination sequences, which hold up excellently today, and can still be intense and scary for younger viewers. The most memorable of these is a stained-glass knight who jumps down of a cathedral wall and menaces a cleric; a more whimsical example is the sinister cupcakes that menace chubby young Watson in a graveyard. Leaving aside the objection that shooting your victims full of hallucinogenic drugs and hoping that they commit suicide while battling phantasms in their delirium isn’t the most fail-proof of techniques for a professional assassin to employ, these scenes are mildly weird and enjoyable enough in themselves to make this flick worth catching for weirdophiles. The hallucinations cease in the second half, as the film becomes more concerned with solving the mystery and restoring the status quo; inevitably Holmes, the apex of rationality, is able to defeat the dark occult specters from the ancient unconscious and reestablish the Age of Enlightenment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…things take a turn towards the predictable thanks to Chris Columbus’s script ignoring all the things that made the duo so dynamic and instead cobbling together some nonsense about Eastern cults and hallucinogenic drugs that more readily recalls the work of Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu) than Conan Doyle.”–Richard Luck, Channel 4 Film

38. MALPERTUIS (1972)

AKA The Legend of Doom House; Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House

“For sure, one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see, a cult film above and beyond anything else; a film for those initiated into midnight screenings.  Where else do such dreams take place?”—Ernest Mathjis, DVD liner notes for the Barrel Entertainment edition of Malpertuis

twoandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel

FEATURING: Mathieu Carrière, Susan Hampshire, , Michel Bouquet,

PLOT:   When his ship sets anchor in a Flemish town, Jan, a sailor, goes looking for his childhood home, only to find that it burned down years ago.  Seeing a fleeing woman he believes to be his sister, he chases her into a brothel where he is knocked unconscious in a brawl.  He awakens in Malpertuis, a massive estate ruled by his Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles) from his sickbed.  Cassavius reads his will to his very strange extended family, and its provisions set them at deadly odds with one another.

Still from Malpertuis (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Malpertuis was an adpation of the only novel written by the Belgian fantasist Jean Ray, who was famous for his macabre short stories (and is sometimes compared to Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft). The novel was complex, composed of four separate narratives told by four characters, and therefore presented a challenge to adapt.
  • Kümel’s previous film was the dreamlike, erotic vampire tale Daughters of Darkness [Les lèvres rouges] (1971).  Hired to make a sexy commercial horror movie, Kümel delivered a memorably bizarre film that pleased exploitation audiences looking for blood and breasts, but was also a crossover hit in the arthouse circuit.  The success of Daughters convinced United Artists to back the Malpertuis project, which was the film Kümel personally wanted to make.  UA’s financial backing enabled Kümel to hire Orson Welles for the key role of Cassavius.
  • Orson Welles was hired for three days of shooting.  An irascible, elderly eccentric by this time in his career, Welles asked for his fee to be delivered in cash in a suitcase.  Welles was drunk and rude on the set, interfering with Kümel’s attempts to direct and, in one case, repeatedly ruining one of Michel Bouquet’s takes until the director agreed to give Welles a closeup he had requested.  At the end of Welles’ three-day contract, the project was well behind schedule due to the legendary actor’s drunkenness, extended lunch breaks and general peevishness.  Apologizing for his behavior, Welles volunteered to work for a fourth day free, and performed all his remaining scenes perfectly in a single morning, putting the production back on schedule.
  • Malpertuis was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972, but United Artists did not like Kümel’s two-hour cut and submitted a dubbed, re-edited 100 minute  version of the film rather than the director’s preferred version.  The film was not popular with the jury, then bombed in both the United States and Europe when UA released its preferred version (misleadingly marketed as a horror pic) as The Legend of Doom House. Not only did the film tank, but Kümel’s promising young career was cut short.  Disgusted with studio interference, he began directing in television and teaching, and has directed only a few unremarkable feature films (including some arty softcore pornography) in the last twenty-eight years.
  • The director’s cut of the film was unavailable on video for many years, and was not seen until the film was re-released in 2002.  This cut was not available on home video until 2005, and not available on Region 1 until 2007.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The weary face of the legendary Orson Welles, grumpy and gray but still regal, as he reclines in tuxedo-like pajamas against scarlet bedsheets.  The bed-ridden Welles embodies the decaying secret center of the wickedness of Malpertuis.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before we get to the psychedelic-era Chinese puzzle-box of


Original French trailer for Malpertuis

an ending(s), Malpertuis has created a disorienting sense of oddness.  Both the film and the titular estate are labyrinthine mazes filled with enchanting and mysteriously decorated rooms, with little explanation of how these dazzling individual pieces fit together into the grand layout.

COMMENTS: “It’s pretty, but it’s a bit difficult to understand… Somehow, it makes me Continue reading 38. MALPERTUIS (1972)

CAPSULE: 9 (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Shane Acker

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT:  Nine robotic ragdolls fight killer machines in a post-human, post-apocalyptic world.

Still from 9 (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: 9 is a visually thrilling movie set in a unique, humanless universe; with a more careful and detailed exploration of that world, the flick could have struck a mildly weird chord.  As it is, the movie is mostly concerned with looking gorgeous (which it does) and providing the kiddies with rambunctious action sequences than it is in digging deep into the mysteries of its fascinating milieu.

COMMENTS:  People constantly, and rightfully, complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality in plots; by the time a screenwriter’s fresh idea makes its way through the suit mill, strong and unique flavors have been ground out of it, replaced with formula salt. Sloppy, rote plotting, climaxing in a well-worn and obvious moral, is so omnipresent in Hollywood product that it seldom raises a critical eyebrow. That is, until something as visually inventive as 9 appears on the screen, when suddenly the relative poverty of imagination of the typical adventure script is thrown into stark relief. 9 is set in a brilliantly realized earth-tone post-apocalypse dominated by bombed-out buildings littered with ruined bric-a-brack. The animation is obviously influenced by Tim Burton disciple Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), but in its brooding darkness and danger it brings to mind a more fluid and rational-minded version of or the Brothers Quay. Flashbacks of the man vs. machine war that wiped out humanity look like a 1940s propaganda film attacked by H.G. Wells’ Martians (they’re even in glorious black and white).

Such a visually inventive world promises, and deserves, to be the backdrop for an equally imaginative story, and here is where 9 falls apart. The characters (known only by number) are quickly and archetypically sketched, but that’s not a major problem; it’s satisfying enough to know that 1 is a fatally conservative leader, 6 is a visionary artist, 7 is a brash warrior, and so on down the line. The major problem is that there is little sense to the burlap doll’s very existence; they fight nightmarish robotic cats and an all-seeing globe which is capable (for some reason) of sucking out their little souls, but it seems like they should be solving the riddle of their existence. They do so, but when they get the answer, it’s a major letdown. The biggest plot problem isn’t that the Scientist created both the nine ragdolls and the beast that dogs them; it’s that, in an epic fit of absentmindedness, he imbued the same gizmo with the power both to activate the apocalypse and provide the last hope of humanity. It’s a bizarre and confusing plan (and for once, I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it’s based on some awfully hokey metaphysics that invokes the idea that if you create a device that shoots souls into the sky, it will eventually rain life-giving amoebas. The truth is, the nine exist in a script that needs menacing robots for them to fight with broken pocketknife blades as big as broadswords; therefore, these evil machines exist, and for no other convincing reason. The script isn’t interested in fleshing out this world or resolving these paradoxes, but only in getting us to the next action sequence or comforting cliche as quickly as possible. In the end, that leaves us with a film that, perhaps unfairly, disappoints us, because it has so much imaginative potential. We may be more forgiving towards Hollywood fare that aims no higher than to provide us with eighty minutes of eye candy and an injection of vicarious adrenaline, and squarely hits its mark.

Acker’s film is an Internet success story. Birthed as an eleven minute short film, 9 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2005, but it was YouTube viewings that created the huge advance buzz for the feature version. The short contained no dialogue—only electronica, metallic battle sounds, and weird ambient noise—and also reveals none of the unsatisfactory backstory. It was far more mysterious, and a more impressive artistic achievement. When Tim Burton decided to adopt the film and serve as producer (by slapping his ticket-selling name on it), the project’s Hollywood credibility went through the roof—and the story was ground into the Hollywood scriptwriting gears.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the strangest animated feature to appear since Coraline… [it has] the feeling of a perversely fascinating ballet mécanique—a movie that literally expends with humans in the way that Hollywood blockbusters have been figuratively doing for years.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Victor Fleming (credited), King Vidor, Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited)

FEATURING: Judy Garland, , Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley

PLOT:  A cyclone carries a Kansas girl (and her little dog, too) to a magical land over the rainbow.

Still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In creating a list of the 366 best weird movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz presents a huge challenge.  After all, this Technicolor extravaganza contains such trippy imagery as a bizarre cyclone that hurls snatches of a young girl’s fears past her spinning window; a land of doll-like little people threatened by a witch; talking apple trees; a giant floating green head appearing and disappearing before a curtain of flame; knife-nosed, green-faced Cossack guards; and of course, flying monkeys—never underestimate the weirdness of flying monkeys.  These should be the building blocks of a stunningly psychedelic pic, but if this magical movie only seems fantastic, never weird, it’s because the entire adventure feels so safe.  The musical numbers, the comedy, and the deliciously stagey sets serve to remind all but the very youngest children that we’re in an artificial, sheltered environment, and that no harm can ever come to Dorothy.  We’re invited to sit back and soak in the spectacle, not to experience it directly.

COMMENTS: Most reviews of The Wizard of Oz could be distilled down to two words: “me too.”  Are you a viewer who loves the movie?  Me, too.  You admire the immaculate casting and performances?  The unforgettable music?  The clever nonsense wordplay of Continue reading CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

CAPSULE: LIFEFORCE (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Tobe Hooper

FEATURING: Mathilda May, Steve Railsback, Peter Firth

PLOT: A space shuttle investigating Halley’s comet discovers a spaceship containing three suspended, nude human bodies; returned to Earth, the bodies come alive and begin vampirically sucking the life force out of humans.

Still from Lifeforce (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTLifeforce is a grandly cheesy and frequently nonsensical mishmash of B-movie cliches, and a great movie to watch with a six-pack on hand. Although it’s loony, offbeat and fun, it’s ultimately too lightweight and not quite systematically deranged enough to rank as one of the greatest weird movies of all time.

COMMENTSLifeforce starts out as an Alien ripoff, and ends up as a Quatermass and the Pit ripoff; in between, it’s a Dracula ripoff, only with a naked woman wandering around using her electric French kiss to turn half of London into dessicated scarecrows who reanimate as zombie vampires after two hours pass. Yes, I said naked woman: French model Mathilda May’s totally nude performance is the thing everyone remembers about the film, and quite obviously the main source of the movie’s unending popularity. The woman is stunning; her body is such a perfect Platonic embodiment of the feminine form that, like a Greek statue, it transcends the erotic and becomes an object of pure aesthetic reverence. The flick would still be worthwhile without Mathilda, but her nude performance adds that certain something that lodges the movie in the cinematic consciousness. Add in early Industrial Light and Magic style special effects, with electric blue rays shooting everywhere in sight during the vampire zombie apocalypse as stolen human souls merge together and climb into a great glowing column shooting up to the alien mothership, and you have a film that’s visually unforgettable. When the beautifully overwrought pyrotechnics of the film are matched to the ludicrous story, a certain magical b-movie alchemy occurs. Lifeforce‘s script seems to be being made up as the film progresses, with the stunned actors getting their lines a few seconds before shooting (the movie is stuffed with deadpan lines like “a naked girl is not going to get out of this complex,” “now she has clothes,” and “in a sense, we’re all vampires”). Soon after the aliens have been returned to Earth and start sucking the life force from humans, we learn that astronaut Steve Railsback has a convenient psychic link with Mathilda May because she gave him part of her life force when she electro-kissed him, which allows him under hypnosis to follow her about as she jumps from body to body infecting more Englishmen and -women with the rapidly spreading plague, only now she needs her life force back so she visits Steve in erotic dreams and tries to steal it, but then she goes to Westminster Abbey and starts acting as a conduit for all the pilfered human souls her sub-vampires are stealing and draws Steve to her and… well, the exact mechanics of this plot to take over Earth from beyond the stars are iffy (had the script for Lifeforce been available in 1959,  might have considered making it Plan 10 from outer space). But the movie just keeps forging ahead, giving the audience more of what it wants (that is, a naked Mathilda May), regardless of logic.

Dan O’Bannon scripted Lifeforce: although he also wrote the serious Alien, some of his other campy screenwriting efforts (Dark Star, Return of the Living Dead) suggest that his tongue might have been planted in his cheek when he delivered this wacky script to Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Hooper.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Extraordinarily bizarre mix of science fiction and vampire movie, more likely to provoke derision than any other emotion.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jörg Buttgereit

FEATURING: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice M.

PLOT:  A necrophiliac who works for a corpse disposal service loses his job, his perverted girlfriend, and finally his mind.

Still from Nekromantik (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although Nekromantik is indisputably weird—not simply in its bizarre concept, but in its numerous nightmare digressions from linearity—it can’t be recommended as a viewing experience.  It’s a badly made, tedious parade of revolting and nihilistic imagery with no ambition other than to shock the viewer.  When the film does utilize weirdness, it does so shallowly and irreverently, solely in service of its intent to disturb.

COMMENTS:  Like sex, inherently shocking imagery in film can be used well, to explore the human experience, or (more commonly) it can be used badly and exploitatively.  The ironic celebration of evil in A Clockwork Orange disturbs the viewer deeply, but the purpose of the film isn’t to shock us; it’s to provoke us into thinking more deeply about the problem of evil by forcefully confronting us with the paradox of free will.

Too many artists, however, have noticed that offending huge numbers of people is a far easier way to draw attention to themselves than working hard at their craft and creating something thoughtful and meaningful.  Sometimes, artists get confused and adopt a simple logical fallacy: much great art, like Nabokov’s “Lolita” or Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou, has shocked and offended large numbers of people; therefore, the purpose of great art must be to shock people.  (This artistic disorder is commonly known as “John Waters Syndrome”).  Most shocking art, however, is made with a more cynical hand, made with the artistic integrity of a freakshow proprietor.  This is the category into which Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik falls.

Un Chien Andalou opens with a shot of a woman’s eyeball being slit by a straight razor, juxtaposed with a shot of a cloud passing in front of the moon.  The image is shocking but artistic, suggestive and numinous.  Nekromantik opens with a shot of panties dropping and urine streaming onto the grass; the image is banal, and, besides breaking Continue reading CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

366WEIRDMOVIES TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIE LISTS – THE FIRST PASS

After officially inducting Time Bandits as the 37th entry on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time, it occurred to me—the project is now just over 10% of the way complete.  What better time to announce my personal (provisional) top 10 picks in two categories: the best weird movies ever made, and the weirdest movies ever made (without regard to quality).  Using only movies that have already been reviewed on these pages, this is what I came up with:

TOP 10 BEST WEIRD MOVIES

These are essential movies that should be viewed by any movie lover.  Even if they hate “weird” movies, watching these ten strong arguments for immortalizing weirdness on celluloid  will at least help them formulate the reason why.

10. El Topo (1970)Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s surreal spaghetti western, in which he casts himself as a Jesus figure, is undoubtedly one of the most narcissistic movies ever made; but it’s fascinating precisely because it’s full of passionate personal symbolism and mystical obsessions.

9. Adaptation (2002)Charlie Kaufman successfully translates metafiction into the film world with this satirical story of a depressed screenwriter writing the script of the film as we are watching it.

8. Oldboy (2003) – The cold hand of fate hangs over Chan-Wook Park‘s improbable, operatic and extreme fable of vengeance destroying the avenger.

7. Donnie Darko (2001) – The embodiment of teenage angst comes in the figure of Donnie, a teen suffering tormenting visions sent to him by a six foot tall demonic bunny rabbit; a lovable jumbled mess of a movie with a convoluted plot that packs an emotional wallop.

6. Carnival of Souls (1962) – The amateurism of the production paradoxically lends an aura of extreme creepiness to this story of a haunted church organist at odds with reality.

TOP 10 WEIRDEST MOVIES

These are damn weird movies that you can put on at a party if you want to clear the room of squares.

10. Archangel (1990) – Amnesiac, nearly silent parable set in a eternally dark Russian city that keeps fighting World War I not knowing the conflict is over; features a coward strangling a Bolshevik with his own intestines.

9. Begotten (1991) – Visually inventive mystical parable that features God disemboweling himself; a parade of metaphorical, metaphysical tortures that is not soon forgotten.

8. Gummo (1997) – A fractured white trash nightmare about the lost denizens of an Ohio town; who can forget Solomon, the weirdest looking kid in the world, eating spaghetti in his filthy bathtub?

7. Dr. Caligari (1989) – A neon pink midnight movie made by an avant-garde porn director; look for the rack inspired by Salvador Dali.

6. Naked Lunch (1991)David Cronenberg wisely chose not to attempt to literally translate William S. Burroughs’ hallucinogenic novel to the screen; instead, he made a movie about Burroughs writing the novel, high on bug powder and taking dictation from typewriter that talks out of its anus.

Place your bets now on the top 5 entries in each category before continuing…

Continue reading 366WEIRDMOVIES TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIE LISTS – THE FIRST PASS

CAPSULE: INTACTO (2001)

AKA Intact

DIRECTED BY: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

FEATURING: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Mónica López, Max von Sydow

PLOT:  In a world where the power of luck is real and spread unequally, fortune’s favorites square off against each other in a series of secret tournaments, sometimes for mortal stakes.

Still from Intacto (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A weird kernel of an idea at the center of a movie can’t qualify it for the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time, without more. Intacto gives us a little bit more, in the form of the bizarre and unnerving rituals engaged in by luck’s elite, but although it’s a strange ride, it’s not enough.

COMMENTS: Intacto starts from a magical realist premise: an individual’s luck is not random, but quantifiable, like a red blood cell count. Some people have more of it than others, and it can be stolen, and traded. With that as the “what if?” starting point, first time director Fresnadillo constructs a strange world where the lucky carry grudges, face each other in underground tournaments, and use luck as a weapon. Structured as an arty dramatic thriller, the main fun to be had in Intacto comes from watching Fresnadillo slowly reveal the rules the fortunate play by. Particularly intriguing are the secretive games of chance the charmed set up to test their skills against one another; going far beyond five-card draw or craps, the matches are all highly artificial and ritualistic, with the rules not disclosed to the viewer beforehand, lending them a sense of mysterious gravity. The best and weirdest has a glowing green katydid selecting a champion by alighting on the molasses-smeared head of the luckiest blindfolded contestant in a darkened room in a casino basement. There’s a weirdish thrill to these mysterious bouts, but the rest of the thriller plot is not so thrilling. There are two converging plotlines. The primary strand features Federico, a former Chosen One who’s been robbed of his luck, seeking a disciple to square off against “the Jew” (a grave and typically impressive Max von Sydow), the lone survivor of a holocaust concentration camp and the reigning God of Chance. He finds one in Tomas, a bank robber and survivor of a plane crash. The secondary plot features Sara, a scarred female detective herself chosen by fortune, who seeks to bring Tomas to justice. The way the dual storylines play out in the climax is satisfying enough, but don’t expect any startling twists or heart-racing moments.

The major downside is that the film, thematically a metaphor about survivor guilt that’s difficult for the average person to connect with emotionally, is relentlessly downbeat and gloomy. Moody Tomas, backed by a morose Federico and hunted by glum female detective, squares off against the haunted Jew. Between the four of them, they can hardly manage to crack one joke or smile to lighten the mood. Intacto’s themes are weighty, but it also seems that director Fresnadillo is also convinced that an oppressive atmosphere is necessary to make an Important Film.

An inversion of Fresnadillo’s scenario can be found in 2003’s less effective and less weird The Cooler, starring William H. Macy as a mope who’s so ill-starred that a Las Vegas casino hires him to drain away the luck of roulette players and slot-jockeys.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Elegant and lucid, and inflected with its own weird species of drollery, Intacto is a cerebral occult thriller from first-time Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, unfolding like a dangerously tricky puzzle, teasing and provoking.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: $9.99 (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Tatia Rosenthal

FEATURING: Voices of: Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia

PLOT:  A series of intertwined tales about the residents of a Sydney apartment complex,

Still from $9.99 (2008)

including a repossessor, a supermodel, a lonely old man, a dour angel, three miniature surfer dudes, and an aimless young man who buys a book promising to supply him with the Meaning of Life for the bargain price of $9.99.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Several of the multiple storylines generate absurd punchlines which depend on the element of surprise; I can’t reveal them without spoiling their intended effect, but be sure they are weird enough to merit our notice.  But despite these (often black) magical realist whammies that invade the daily lives of the residents of Rosenthal’s Claymation apartment complex, $9.99‘s not entirely successful as weird film.  By dividing its attention between an observational drama on the Way We Live Today and a surrealistic spectacle, $9.99 fails to find a viable tone.  The bleak existential punchlines often fail to pop out of the flat dramatic background.  Ultimately, the film works better as a feature-length advertisement for the short stories of Etgar Keret (who wrote both the original stories and the screenplay) than it does as a feature.

COMMENTS:  Just like the promise embodied in the priced-to-move tome on the Meaning of Life, $9.99 is an intriguing work that constantly taunts us with hints that some great epiphany lurks around the next narrative bend, just out of our current view.  In the end, the major lesson we glean from it is to temper our expectations the next time we hear a too-good-to-be-true pitch.  The opening is a near-perfect, beautifully balanced and drawn-out battle of conflicting agendas between a passive-aggressive deadbeat begging for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a businessman whose sense of propriety ever-so-slightly exceeds his compassion.  It’s easy to see how this exchange would have made a gripping short story, but the scene also sets up a darkly comic and ironic callback sequence near the end of the film.  These great moments are, sadly, too few and far between.  Although the individual story arcs of the nine major characters are interwoven seamlessly, the film suffers from trying to give each of them equal time, regardless of how inherently interesting they are.  The anthology film is a difficult form to succeed in: even the master Robert Altman couldn’t always pull it off, much less a first time director.  A storyline about a child and his piggy bank is unexpectedly sweet, given the morose tone of the rest of the film, but it lacks heft and a larger purpose in the story.  The film would have worked better if it had revolved entirely around its most interesting character, the morose and afterlife-weary “angel” voiced by Geoffrey Rush, with the other tales submerged into subplots feeding into the main theme.  Although I may be in the critical minority here, I found the Claymation to be unsatisfactory, and constantly wondered whether the film would have worked better as live action.  The animation is only used to magical purpose in a couple of places; otherwise, its main effect is to make the characters less expressive than real actors.  These clay figurines lack the human ability to express true wonder, fear, desire or disappointment.  This may be a deliberate choice to highlight the characters’ alienation and strangeness, but in a mostly drab and a downbeat film in need of more warmth and richer textures, the tactic backfires.

$9.99 is an oddly positioned film that will have trouble finding an audience outside of dedicated Etgar Keret fans.  It’s too weird to appeal to those looking for a thoughtful drama, but too dry and literary to build a cult audience.  It’s worth a look when it shows up on DVD if some aspect of the production interests you—the author, the art of stop-motion animation, movies with thoughtful but inconclusive storytelling—but its not essential viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An aura of dreamy melancholy… pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin… in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)