All posts by Alex Kittle

I like ambiguous video and installation art, experimental comic books, screaming lady bands, and of course, delightfully strange and surreal films. I dig regular stuff, like pizza and The Kinks, too.

I also make and sell film-inspired art: http://www.etsy.com/shop/guiltycubicle

CAPSULE: MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julianne Moore, , , Evan Bird,

PLOT: The lives of several Hollywood insiders intertwine unexpectedly after the arrival of Agatha, a mysterious young woman who intrudes upon the lives of a wannabe screenwriter, a popular teen heartthrob, a self-help TV guru, and a successful but aging actress.

Still from Maps to the Stars (2014))
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its combination of Hollywood satire, ghostly apparitions, homicidal sensationalism, and heaps of incest does hit a few marks on the Weird-o-Meter, but Maps to the Stars doesn’t plunge into the depths of weirdness achieved in Cronenberg’s earlier, body horror-centric features like Dead Ringers and Videodrome.

COMMENTS: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) has been around show business all her life. Her mother was a popular actress made more notable when she died tragically in a fire while still in the prime of youth, and now a prominent director is re-imagining her most famous film, with Havana gunning for a supporting role as her mother’s imaginary grown self. At a crossroads in her career and still coming to terms with sexual abuse she suffered at her mother’s hand, Havana sees the sudden arrival of new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) as a sign and instantly takes her in. Meanwhile, teen sensation Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird)—only 13 and just out of rehab—is filming the sequel to his hit comedy Bad Babysitter, but finds himself upstaged by his child costar. His father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a New Age self-help therapist with a talk show and a sea of celebrity clients, including Havana Segrand.

In that unsurprising cinematic way, these and many other lives are intricately connected through family and work, and Agatha becomes both the glue that binds them and the catastrophe that unsettles them. The incestuous nature of mainstream filmmaking is thus satirized, but with a heavy dose of actual incest. It is never outwardly explained or analyzed, it’s just there, a stated and very present fact looming over every interaction. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner packs in every ounce of sensationalism worthy of a Star headline, from sex and abuse to drug addiction and murder, bluntly illustrating the complete breakdown of this family beset by mental illness but unable to cope with it while in the public eye. It’s all done with a slight sense of distance, with each character playing exaggerated versions of real people and the whole observed with a cool eye, so that we won’t feel guilty laughing. Much has been made of Maps to the Stars being Cronenberg’s “first comedy” (though the director himself claims he’s never made anything but comedies), and it is for the most part quite funny. Between Moore’s exaggerated California accent, Cusack’s self-help b.s., Agatha’s tall tales, snarky movie references, and the winking celebrity self-obsession, there is a lot to laugh about.

Of course, Hollywood satire is nothing new, but Cronenberg  gives it his own sick, twisted take, fusing Greek melodrama and tongue-in-cheek humor with inescapable darkness. The story is populated with ghostly apparitions that haunt Havana and Benjie, gradually moving in on their already-fragile psyches. The egoism and lack of empathy so many associate with the movie industry are made manifest in these people, and their punishment is poetic. Though removed from the body horror aesthetic for which he is perhaps still most known, the film is visually striking in its very deliberate framing of characters, its stark, modern interiors, its costumes-as-uniforms, and its jarring juxtapositions. (There is, however, one major visual hiccup in a self-immolation scene towards the end that I hope was a self-aware commentary on cinematic artificiality because the CGI was terrible.) The vicious but contained acts of violence are brutal and chilling, escalating quickly until it becomes clear there can be no easy way out for anyone, every character has essentially been digging their own grave from the beginning. The abrupt changes in tone and focus could be distracting, but the very talented cast takes it all in stride and manages to make it work, moved along by the thoughtful direction. Besides, it’s not like anyone is going to a Cronenberg film expecting a nice, neat little package where everything works out in the end, right?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s something bizarrely funny as well as truly sad in the director’s vision of Rodeo Drive denizens and their heavily medicated affects.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso

PLOT: An entomology professor and her student are very much in love, but their romance is threatened by the latter’s preference for BDSM practices in the bedroom.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the subject matter might seem strange or unusual to some viewers, the film itself is simply an examination of two women who are going through a trial in their relationship. There is some bizarre dream imagery and a choppy narrative style, but nothing truly Weird.

COMMENTS: The Duke of Burgundy opens with a drawn-out sexual role play as the wide-eyed Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) enters the house of domineering mistress Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to act as housekeeper. Evelyn scrubs and shines and soaks as Cynthia thinks of more demeaning tasks for her to do, ending the day with punishment for unsatisfactory work in the form of urination into Evelyn’s mouth. This scene returns in multiple forms later, as we see different perspectives and points in time, serving as an anchor for our understanding of their relationship. The film unfolds over a semester at the isolated women’s school where Cynthia lectures and Evelyn studies, but most of the focus is on their private moments at home. As the persistent Evelyn comes up with new ways to be dominated, she believes she’s found the perfect partner in Cynthia, who is willing to act the dominatrix if it makes her lover happy. However, it soon becomes clear that the older woman is uncomfortable with the parts Evelyn creates for her, struggling to emotionally and physically abuse her lover even in the context of role playing, and then growing to resent her for her increasing demands.

Strickland made waves two years ago with his stunning, unnerving ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio, in which a British sound technician sinks into a paranoid fever dream while shooting a gory horror in Italy. Here, the director again treats the eyes to a sultry palette, ornate settings, and thoughtful camerawork, matched by an effective soundtrack that pairs fuzzy synths with the hum of insects. The opening credits use freeze-frame and oversaturation to reference vintage softcore film, but thanks to the soundtrack and visceral color choices, other moments are more reminiscent of a slasher. The retro vibe is heightened by the somewhat ambiguous setting and time period. Fashions and hairstyles suggest the 1950s or 60s, the aesthetic is more 70s, the landscape and architecture is classical, evoking rural Italy (though filmed in Hungary), and everyone speaks English with different European accents. He clearly devotes much of his time to mixing and matching different film references, from art house to grindhouse, but ultimately the focus is on the characters. Even the weirder touches, including frequent close-ups of insects and stark shots of architecture, are meant to communicate the sense of dread that is hanging over Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship as they move into darker sexual territory. There is a palpable feeling of intimacy in Strickland’s approach, utilizing close-ups and lingering shots to effect a kind of quietude over most of the proceedings. It is easily to believe in this relationship, though the world around them is often hazy.

On paper The Duke of Burgundy sounds like it should be a sleazy straight male fantasy about lesbian kink, and yet Strickland forgoes all sensationalism—there isn’t that much (explicit) sex or even nudity shown. Evelyn’s mental stimulation is highlighted, as she derives pleasure from being locked in a chest, verbally berated, and sat on by Cynthia. The BDSM scenes are often treated with humor, not to make fun of those practices but to reveal the kind of goofy accidents or strange conversations that might come with it, and to break the tension for an unfamiliar audience. At other times they are presented in a cold, almost sterile manner, with Cynthia eventually injecting a form of revenge into their role play. What is both wonderful and striking about this film is its undertone of normalcy, its relatable and honestly touching portrayal of a romantic struggle, despite its apparently sexploitative premise. The basic story could easily be rewritten with different conflicts, with different genders, with different settings; the BDSM elements are both central to the narrative and secondary to the overarching theme. The film asks if sexual preferences can damage an otherwise strong relationship, and if personal contentment can exist without complete sexual fulfillment. It allows us to peek into something extremely personal, but universal, intermingling with our own insights and experiences, with a dreamlike style so lush and distinctive we still walk away feeling like we’ve left behind a world of fantasy. It might not be List-worthy, but it is certainly worth seeing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the question of who’s really in charge of these scenarios is complicated. Exactly the same deceptive quality can be found in the dreamlike artifice of Strickland’s film itself, set in a lush and aristocratic European fantasyland that’s entirely nonspecific as to geography and chronology… But while Strickland’s films already aren’t like anyone else’s, his real secret is that even in this strange constructed world, his characters feel like real people struggling with issues that aren’t exotic at all.”–Andrew O’Hehir, “Salon” (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Glazer

FEATURING: , Adam Pearson

PLOT: An alien in the form of a beautiful woman skulks around Glasgow in a white van hunting for single men, whom she collects for some unknown but supposedly nefarious purpose. Eventually she becomes confused by her own temporary humanity, and her physical body starts to shut down.

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WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With an acute vision and a puzzling but highly rewarding plot, Under the Skin is easily among the best of 2014, and may well turn out to be the weirdest. The action moves slowly, but is filled with wonderfully bizarre imagery and powerful space-y scoundscapes. Its storytelling is inventive, and nothing is obvious.

COMMENTS: Under the Skin opens with abstract images of space and birth, with the sounds of a woman learning to talk played over the ambient score. An unnamed biker pulls a dead woman into a van, in which a naked Scarlett Johansson takes on her appearance, and her clothing. The next day, she begins her unexplained quest for bodies, driving around and innocently asking for directions while slyly prying into her prey’s background. If they have girlfriends or family, or are on their way to meet friends, she leaves, but if she determines them to be alone and single, she invites them back to her weird abandoned-looking house. Entranced by her beauty, they follow her blindly until they are absorbed into the floor, sinking into black goo. When she comes upon a disfigured young man (Adam Pearson), she falters in her single-minded mission, and begins to look for human experiences, though she is generally unable to understand them.

Adamantly maintaining a “show, don’t tell” attitude, Jonathan Glazer teases his audience with nibbles of information, encouraging us to assemble the puzzle pieces ourselves. This type of storytelling forces us to carefully consider every image presented, questioning characters’ unstated motives and giving a close reading to each scene. The movie is almost palpably quiet, relying little on dialogue and offering a mix of natural background noise and unearthly music, leaving a lot of room for inner thought to fill in the stillness. We must connect how the silent biker is related to Scarlett Johansson’s character, what purpose the abducted men serve, what prompts the protagonist to abandon her hunt, and why she seems to be struggling with her alien body. All of this information is made available to us, if we pay attention. Every shot is precise and deliberate, with many scenes carefully constructed through the use of hidden cameras—so many of the men interacting with Johansson are at first unaware that they are in a movie. There is an intriguing combination of gritty, rainy urban areas, dark but lush forests, and weird alien spaces, plus the juxtaposition of hidden-camera verism and sci-fi unreality. It is at once unsettling, confusing, exciting, and utterly compelling.

This is, for the most part, understated weirdness. Glazer’s non-expository, matter-of-fact style belies how inventive the film’s approach really is. He reveals an alien’s view of our world, and often makes humanity as strange to his audience as it is to his protagonist. The men’s thickly-accented, slang-ridden speech is often confusing (to this American viewer, that is), and common human rituals are made to appear odd. Why do we wear make-up? Or eat chocolate cake? Or have sex? An extended sequence shows a family spending time on a rocky beach, but the parents leave their toddler on the shore as they swim out to save their drowning dog. The protagonist watches this dramatic scene from afar, a nonpartisan observer, not so much uncaring as she is disengaged, never moved to help or hinder because their plight just isn’t related to her. Even the considerable nudity is approached with a sense of detachment, and made to be completely nonsexual despite the context. Though her origins are never actually mentioned, there is no doubt she is an alien creature, a hunter given human form but never made to understand the person she inhabits. The sick joke is that while visually she embodies the human equivalent of prey—female, beautiful, small, alone—inwardly she is a powerful predator. Under the Skin is a strange and dark thriller that manages to wryly comment on gender stereotyping and (straight) sexual relations without actually delivering any kind of message. As a film, as a story, as a work of art, it simply is.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Under the Skin sometimes feels like it should be more elusive, but the moment you try and lock it down it slips away from you, going off into weirder territory.” –Matt Prigge, Metro

LIST CANDIDATE: THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS (2013)

DIRECTED BY and

FEATURING: Klaus Tange, Birgit Yew, Anna D’Annunzio, Hans de Munter

PLOT: Dan Kristensen comes home from a business trip to find that his wife is missing. His investigation into her disappearance leads him down an intricate rabbit hole of murder, sex, scopophilia, demonic possession, and, especially, confusion, as he moves within the impossible spaces of his mysterious apartment building.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its influx of surreal imagery, bizarre plot twists, aggressive soundscapes, and grunge-decadence sets, the weirdness of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is not in question. Its place on the List is hard to solidify, however, as its weirdness doesn’t quite compensate for the dragged-out pace, irrelevant script, and unnecessary repetition.

COMMENTS: Hurling images of kinky sex, paranormal apparitions, and violent attacks before the viewer’s eyes, all edited in quick-cut fashion: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is quite the experience. Its filmmakers seek to unsettle and disorient, and at that they are certainly successful. Just as the regular-Joe protagonist is thrust into this impossible situation, the audience is taken on a strange and terrible journey that makes very little sense, and frustrates more than it entertains. As a whole the film is very scattered, peppered with moments of brilliance between overwrought segments of confusion. Cattet and Forzani seem to have opened up a big book of experimental film techniques and just took a stab at every trick they happened upon. Some sequences are marvelous, including a dream wherein Dan becomes stuck in a time loop, meeting and killing multiple versions of himself over and over. Another shows an older woman losing her husband to a sinister force in the room above the bedroom, as she is left with nothing to do but listen to the strange noises coming through the ceiling. Still another is filmed in a sort of fuzzy black and white time-lapse, as a woman is chased by an unknown demonic figure. Other sequences feel completely pointless, as various asides and barely connected subplots and characters appear and disappear on a whim.

This film never allows its audience to find their footing, but it also never really rewards the more loyal viewer for sticking around til the end. It was at first engrossing for its emphatic—almost combative—illegibility, bullying its way through numerous red herring plot twists and presenting an extreme giallo-throwback aesthetic. The sets are beyond beautiful, with most of the action taking place within Dan’s apartment building, surrounded by Art Nouveau filigree and deep, heady color combinations. The sheer number of bizarre happenings and nontraditional cinematic techniques employed is honestly impressive, but the constant flood of ideas eventually becomes tiresome, especially as the story (a term I use loosely here) proves more and more cyclical. There’s little momentum, and little payoff for a film that stretches very thinly over its 102 minutes. It’s clear the film would have worked better as a short, where Cattet and Forzani could have packed in all of their artsy grindhouse weirdness without wearing out their welcome. But for diehard giallo fans, it’d definitely be worth it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Formally experimental, headily disorienting and an aesthete’s wet dream, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is a schizophrenic blend of arthouse and charnelhouse.” –Anton Bitel, Sight & Sound Magazine

CAPSULE: EVANGELION: 3.0 YOU CAN (NOT) REDO (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Hideaki Anno, Mahiro Maeda, Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki

FEATURING: Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Yuko Miyamura, Akira Ishida

PLOT: 14 years after the cataclysmic events of the previous film, humans are barely surviving on a barren earth. Evangelion pilot Shinji Ikari wakes up from a coma to find himself at the center of a war for the planet’s future.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though this is the weirdest so far of the Evangelion reboot movies, it can’t really be recommended out of context of the other films. The series’ mixture of convoluted plotting, infuriating ambiguity, and biblical skewering is bizarre enough to make it recommended anime viewing, if not List-worthy on its own.

COMMENTS: In a gutsy narrative move, Evangelion 3.0 completely upends the established structure and tenuous stability of the first two films, introducing a host of new ideas and assigning new roles to major characters. It begins by immediately throwing the audience into the action, offering no introduction for the great space battle populated by Evangelion units, a massive experimental hovercraft, and horrific space angels. (Not that it matters, since the sequence is jaw-dropping even without context.) Shinji—and thus, the viewer—awakens to a confused, damaged world completely without the false sense of security found in the previous installments. Everyone is scarred, everyone is scared, and no one will give Shinji a straight answer, so he is batted about between these warring factions without any explanation as to what is going on. For the most part only newcomer Kaworu (a fellow Evangelion pilot with his own troubled past) seems interested in even talking to him, and the two quickly forge a deep bond that seems to replace all of Shinji’s questions as opposed to answering them.

With so many new plots and subplots and a steadfast refusal to explain almost anything, this movie is as infuriating a watch as it is compelling. For once I was sympathetic towards the whiny, ineffectual character of Shinji because his confusion and self-centered moaning were completely justifiable: for him, everything is terrible and nothing makes sense, plus everyone he’s ever loved is either dead or not speaking to him. Due to the utter lack of exposition, the visuals become paramount, and the animation and design are truly a sight to behold: colorful and kinetic during action sequences, broad and at-times painterly during still moments. The intricate technological design, impressively cinematic settings, and thoughtful character design are all at their height here, and the animation bests that of the first two films.

It is in many ways a disorienting experience, piling on so many strange ideas and characters, referencing events and concepts that are never given much elaboration, but Evangelion 3.0 manages to be intellectually engaging as well as emotionally intense. The events of the previous entries are necessary to understand the full impact of this film’s events, especially the characters’ relationships and, of course, the “Third Impact” that destroys most of the earth. While it is typically frustratingly obtuse, there are certain moves forward in plotting, certain mysteries solved. Of course, for every question answered a thousand more rise in its place, and there are still so many unresolved or untreated issues. Shinji ended the film just as much a self-absorbed brat as before, so involved with his own actions that he sort of neglected to notice how his new co-pilot had become a central, destructive figure in this whole mess. So the audience is left with as much knowledge there as Shinji himself, who never stopped to ask what was going on because he was too busy whining. As usual.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once upon a time in the ’60s, a critic would have known exactly what to say: that the gorgeous, cacophonous anime sound-and-light show ‘Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo’ should only be watched in an altered state. That would be a serviceable approach to a film that too often substitutes obfuscation for complexity, to relax and drift along on the often-spectacular, pulsating visuals.” –David Chute, Variety

LIST CANDIDATE: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

UPDATE (3/5/2014): Upstream Color has been officially inducted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Here is the Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Upstream Color

PLOT: After a man known as the Thief drugs a young woman and steals most of her money, she loses her job and some of her memory, and needs to start an entirely new life; a year later she is romantically pursued by an incorrigible businessman, but their relationship is hindered by her traumatic experience and the enterprising man behind it.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Approaching the narrative in a dreamlike state, Upstream Color is a surreal and beautiful journey through lingering trauma, tinged with elements of science-fiction and romantic drama. Its convoluted, unstructured story is at first distancing, but the imaginative visuals, strong performances, and compelling use of sound make for a weird movie that’s also emotionally resonant.

COMMENTS: Opening with choppy shots of a mysterious drug operation involving white worms with unique mind-altering properties, Upstream Color devotes most of its first act to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a special effects coordinator who is knocked out, drugged up with a worm, and essentially taken hostage in her own home for a few days. The worm has a kind of brainwashing effect, allowing the Thief (Thiago Martins) to coerce Kris into signing away all that she owns. Left alone and discovering the living worm crawling around inside her skin, she is sonically drawn to a pig farm where the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) cuts it out of her and harvests it for future use. She wakes up at home with no memory of the experience, and only an empty bank account and unemployment to look forward to. It is a deeply unsettling sequence, played out in short, calculated bursts that emphasize the strange and harrowing process of Kris’ mental infiltration. The Thief remains faceless and monotone while she unquestioningly follows his every command, which primarily involve making her repetitively perform mundane tasks as a means of keeping her weak and controlled.

Fast-forwarding: after things have settled down, Kris, with a new haircut and an unexciting job at a copy shop, is harsh and distrustful. Her first interactions with Jeff (Shane Carruth) are halting and unsure, choppy and without resolution, and as their relationship grows deeper their scenes together become repetitive and disjointed. Both seem to have confused memories. The soft-glow blur of their romance is cut through with an otherworldly hum that seems to take over Kris, and she and Jeff begin to realize there are greater forces at work here. Their unconscious repetitive actions echo each other, and they see connections in each other’s fragmented psyches. Through it all the Sampler watches them, maintaining the pig farm where he harvests the mind-altering worms, with each pig serving as some kind of psychic link to the humans he’s operated on. His stony, unreadable demeanor makes him an ominous figure, and his sound-gathering trips are fascinating while also somehow menacing.

Upstream Color is notable for its combination of different genre and story elements that are blended and transformed through Carruth’s innovative narrative and filmic techniques. Diffused light and extreme close-ups mix with quick-cut editing and microscopic natural wonders, along with some graphic medical procedures and animal abuse. The loving attention to sound—both effects and background score—is clear, effectively creating an at-times anxious and at-times comforting atmosphere. The film is composed of little details that may or may not be important, as the bigger picture gradually, partially reveals itself, so that every scene is equally gripping and enigmatic. While the story is often ambiguous, Carruth does not lose sight of his characters, and in fact the performance of Amy Seimetz as the central figure grounds much of the film. As a whole it is certainly obscure and utterly dreamlike, and most viewers will likely leave unsure of exactly what went on, but certain that whatever it was, it was beautiful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “To watch the haunting, disturbing ‘Upstream Color’ is to feel like you’re inside not one of your own dreams but someone else’s, a dream that’s both compelling and unnerving in ways you can’t put your finger on.” –Kenneth Turan, LA Times.

LIST CANDIDATE: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

NOTE: John Dies at the End has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the official Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A young paranormal investigator relates his strange and twisted backstory to a skeptical reporter. It involves alien creatures, a drug that gives its users heightened senses and psychic abilities, and a parallel universe whose twisted denizens are edging their way into our own.

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WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its labyrinthine plot and genre-bending themes make John Dies at the End an interesting experience, with plenty of bizarre characters and twists, but at times the film is just weird for the sake of being weird, forsaking good storytelling in the process.

COMMENTS: Blending the well-worn motifs of alien invasion, inter-dimensional travel, and the over-confidence of youth into a heady concoction of oddities, John Dies at the End isn’t easy to summarize, or even encapsulate. The narrative flits back and forth erratically as Dave (Chase Williamson) attempts to communicate his experiences to a bemused journalist played by Paul Giamatti. It all starts—sort of—with a late-night phone call from Dave’s excitable friend John (Rob Mayes), whose ingestion of an out-of-this-world drug known as “Soy Sauce” sends him down a time-traveling, mind-reading, future-predicting rabbit hole. Dave accidentally takes some Soy Sauce himself, and soon he is escaping from a hardened police detective (Glynn Turman) who suspects him of several gruesome murders, while trying to save John and two other high school friends who’ve been kidnapped by a demonic being from an alternate universe. And then a lot of other stuff happens, but not always in chronological order.

Without prior knowledge of the webserial/novel this is based on, John Dies at the End can only be a surprise. It rapidly transitions between wry humor, gross-out gore, paranormal mystery, hallucinatory freak-outs, and sci-fi adventure, all set amidst general confusion. This is the type of film that was made to be a cult classic, with little hope for or interest in appealing to a wide audience. At times this obvious intention to be weird means that the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense, but if you’re looking for straight-up bizarre then it’s not a huge loss. The low-quality special effects are mostly excused by unique visual ideas and some well-placed animation.

With its nonlinear narrative structure and consuming focus on strange happenings, the film doesn’t spend too much time developing characters, and as the protagonist Dave is a little weak: for the most part Williamson just shows off his “Sarcastic Inner Monologue” expression or various reaction faces. He and Mayes are both very regular-seeming guys, the kind you probably knew in high school or college. They are surrounded by a charismatic supporting cast, including the lovably loudmouth Giamatti, the imposing Clancy Brown, the hardcore Glynn Turman, and the naturally creepy Doug Jones. Shuffled about by an intricate story and ever-uncertain motivations, they seem to relish the script’s absurdities.

John Dies at the End is uneven as a whole, driven to episodic distraction with an abundance of half-realized subplots and unanswered questions, but it has a way of worming itself into the brain that results in a kind of fascination. The twisted creatures, unexpected sight gags, colorful settings, and surreal visions create an idiosyncratic aesthetic that’s as funny as it is fantastic. Frozen meat comes to life, mustaches fly through the air, headless zombies attack, alien bugs take over unsuspecting drunk teenagers… By the time Dave and John leap into an alternate dimension populated by nude figures with eerie masks ruled by a giant hyper-intelligent spider monster, I was convinced of its Weirdness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everybody pretty much gets weird throughout this trippy head-shaker of a movie. It’s hard to be sure if the film adds up logically — seems doubtful — but it’s so bizarre you don’t much care.” –Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

135. FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“…[a] spontaneous creation without thought to logic, reason or consequences.”–Richard Elfman on Forbidden Zone

DIRECTED BY: Richard Elfman

FEATURING: , , Marie-Pascale Elfman, Phil Gordon, Matthew Bright (as “Toshiro Baloney”), Viva, Danny Elfman

PLOT: A curious girl wanders into the surreal “Sixth Dimension” located behind a door in her basement. There she encounters all manner of strange creatures and characters, including a lascivious dwarf king and his jealous wife, while her family members and a hapless schoolmate search for her. Numerous silly musical numbers are dispersed through their adventures.

Still from Forbidden Zone (1982)

BACKGROUND:

  • Forbidden Zone was initially developed as a short film project for the cabaret performance troupe Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, which included brothers Richard and Danny Elfman. They wanted to capture the essence of their live performances at their most grandiose; afterwards, their musical style and stage show moved toward a smaller-scale, New Wave sound (at which point they shortened their name to just Oingo Boingo and became especially popular on 80’s comedy soundtracks, but that’s another story).
  • Composer and singer Danny Elfman, who also appears as the Devil, eventually went on to become a highly successful film composer, known especially for his collaborations with .
  • Several of the songs are reworkings of jazz and swing tunes from the 1920’s and 30’s, including songs by Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker.
  • Marie-Pascale Elfman, who stars as Frenchy, was married to director Richard Elfman at the time, and also designed the playful sets and backdrops.
  • The violent, rowdy school scenes are inspired by Richard Elfman’s Los Angeles high school, which is located in the same neighborhood where Boyz n the Hood later takes place.
  • Warhol superstar Viva was convinced to play the small role of the Ex-Queen because she was able to write her own lines, which mostly consist of a drawn-out monologue about her imprisonment.
  • Hervé Villechaize was once roommates with co-writer Matthew Bright (who plays siblings Squeezit and René) and had dated his co-star Susan Tyrrell. He helped fund the film through its constant financial woes, and in fact most of the actors fed their paychecks back into the production.
  • The film was met with controversy upon release due to its use of blackface and Jewish stereotypes, but eventually it gained cult status.
  • Richard Elfman has mentioned working on Forbidden Zone 2 since 2005, but nothing concrete has materialized—yet.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A lot of scenes stand out in my mind, especially the musical numbers. While Danny Elfman’s “Squeezit the Moocher” sequence is a personal favorite, Susan Tyrrell’s solo song, “Witch’s Egg,” exemplifies a lot of the film’s visual ingenuity, sexual abandon, and lyrical fun.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Between the puzzling storyline, psychedelic sets and animated sequences, frequent gender-bending, old-timey jazz/new wave fusion musical numbers, lighthearted sado-masochism, laughably terrible acting, and strange creatures, it’d be more of a challenge to discuss what’s NOT weird about Forbidden Zone. Its cartoonish visuals, eclectic cast, and memorable musical sequences make for a compelling experience, peppered with utterly bizarre additives throughout.

Short clip from Forbidden Zone

COMMENTS: Opening on a lopsided two-dimensional house, Forbidden Zone‘s prologue explains in text-format that a dealer who stashed his drugs Continue reading 135. FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)

LIST CANDIDATE: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

Beyond the Black Rainbow won 2015’s reader-determined “List Candidate” tournament and was placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. The official entry is here.

DIRECTED BY: Panos Cosmatos

FEATURING: Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands, Marilyn Nory

PLOT: Within the depths of a mysterious, retro-utopian health clinic, a troubled psychologist attempts to treat a silent young woman with telekinetic powers, but she keeps trying to escape.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Weird story, weird characters, weird weird visuals: Beyond the Black Rainbow definitely has weirdness in spades. At times it is overly self-satisfied in its ambiguity, but overall it’s a strong psychological thriller that revels in the bizarre.

COMMENTS: Opening with a creepily soothing informational video reminiscent of something out of the Dharma Initiative, Beyond the Black Rainbow immediately sets a dark and cryptic tone. The kindly Dr. Mercurio Arboria believes he has created a center for peace, understanding, and mind-opening advancement of the human race. Years later, his haven seems deserted, with only the mute and magical Elena seen in its cells. She is quiet but tightly coiled, ready to burst both mentally and physically. She holds Dr. Arboria’s protégée Barry Nyle in deep sway, but her importance to the institution is unclear. Through a surreal and unforthcoming flashback sequence her connection to Dr. Arboria and Nyle is expressed, though her telekinetic abilities remain something of a mystery. Her eventual escape prompts Nyle to take serious action.

Writer/director Panos Cosmatos draws from trippy horror-thrillers of the 70’s and 80’s to create his mood, with flashes of Altered States, 2001, Scanners, and the like. The pace is measured, with asides to Nyle’s dreary home life paired with closer views into the stark, enigmatic complex of Arboria. White walls intersect in a maze of cells and hallways, black panels reveal hidden objects, colored lights and energy pyramids glow in the dark—all while eerie synthesizers pulse over the soundtrack. The close shooting style lends the film a claustrophobic, tense atmosphere that is increased as the visuals become stranger and more abstract. Psychedelic colors swirl and coalesce, while a cult ritual is acted out in severe black and white and uncanny slow motion. Mutants in latex suits roam the hallways, and, oh yeah, heads explode!

As supposed psychologist Barry Nyle, star Michael Rogers wears his own face like a mask—impenetrable and unreal. His manner is cool and calculated, whether he’s murdering his own mentor or talking to his confused wife. His sadistic, violent nature is fully revealed through physical transformation, resulting in a chilling slasher chase during the film’s climax as Nyle hunts down Elena. Elena herself starts off as a typical waifish victim, silent and impassive. As her anger and determination rise, she becomes more self-assured and by the end is definitely a character to root for, a new-age Final Girl who values her freedom more than her revenge.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is in some ways high-minded and inaccessible, but its gorgeous and dreamlike visuals combined with its haunting electronic score and intriguing premise make for an engrossing and all-around weird experience. Its horror-thriller undertones and 1980s influences are well-incorporated, though some of its actual story/script elements are messy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unless you’re among those who still drop acid as a midnight-movie apéritif, your enjoyment of this retro oddity remains far from guaranteed.”–Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

122. BARBARELLA (1968)

Recommended

AKA Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy

“Barbarella, pyschedella,
There’s a kind of cockleshell about you…”
–Lyrics from Barbarella‘s theme song

DIRECTED BY: Roger Vadim

FEATURING: Jane Fonda, , Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau, ,

PLOT: A wide-eyed aviatrix known as Barbarella must travel to the outer reaches of the peaceful galaxy to stop rebellious scientist Durand-Durand from unleashing his weapon, the Positronic Ray. She is rescued from a gang of dolls with razor-sharp metal teeth by a man who teaches her the ways of physical love, then befriends a blind angel. Her search leads her into conflict with the Grand Tyrant in a sinful city of the future.

Still from Barbarella (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the French comic series of the same name, Barbarella‘s screenplay features her creator Jean-Claude Forest among its many credits, as well as novelist  (who also worked on the scripts for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, among others).
  • The entire film was shot on a soundstage in Italy, meaning that the wondrous, complex sets were built from scratch for every scene. An oil wheel projector was used to create the trippy, amorphous backgrounds that visually expanded the limited space into larger territory. Several of the Italian actors are dubbed in English.
  • Among the many cut sequences from the final product is a titillating love scene between Jane Fonda and Anita Pallenberg. Publicity stills of the scene exist but it was never actually filmed.
  • At the time Barbarella was shot, star Jane Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, known as the man who discovered (and married/divorced) the young Brigitte Bardot.
  • The bands Duran Duran and Matmos took their names from this film.
  • Barbarella was a flop on release. It was re-released in 1977 to cash in on the space opera craze started by Star Wars, with most of the nudity removed to create a PG rated version entitled Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Fonda’s titillating anti-gravity striptease over the opening credits is the highlight, or her sweaty orgasmic torture under the deadly Excessive Machine. For me the most remarkable visual moment is the Great Tyrant’s Chamber of Dreams, wherein Barbarella runs around in confusion, backed by fantastic lava-lamp patterns and floating bubbles as a rambling xylophone score tinkles over the action.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Merging elements of sex-romp comedy, ludicrous science fiction, and death-defying action-adventure with memorably psychedelic imagery, Barbarella is a series of disjointed sequences that get stranger and stranger as the story progresses. The wild costumes, over-saturated color schemes, goofy dialogue, and sly winks to the audience are punctuated with weird little details, from deadly animatronic dolls to a hair-raising futuristic sex scene with minimal physical contact.


Original trailer from Barbarella (1968)

COMMENTS: Set in a wildly distant future where war and violence no longer exist, everyone has Continue reading 122. BARBARELLA (1968)