All posts by Simon Hyslop

Self-taught film nut, history enthusiast and furry living and occasionally working in Cape Town, South Africa. I've also got it into my head to do film reviews on YouTube under the name DorianCairne.

“POSSIBLY IN MICHIGAN” AND THE MEME MARKET FOR WEIRDNESS

As a great many companies have realized by now, the marketing potential of internet memes is tremendous. Incorporate your brand or product into a successful meme, and internet users will happily spread it across the world of their own volition, every one of them organically developing a positive association with it.

And as video artist recently discovered, the effectiveness of marketing through memes is hardly limited to mainstream brands.

Still from Possibly in Michigan
Possibly in Michigan

You’ve likely come across Condit’s 1983 short film “Possibly in Michigan” (possibly on this site). The abstract narrative follows a pair of young women as they are pursued by a masked cannibal; the anarchic editing; Casio-backed musical numbers; and the strange, lilting tone with which the actresses deliver their lines give it a distinctively surreal tone. It feels like a  bizarre combination of a B-movie, an acid trip, a lighthearted musical, and a feminist statement on the nature of toxic relationships all mixed together.

It’s a wonderfully witty and dreamlike piece of work, but it could hardly be called widely accessible; and it is, moreover, infused with a heavily 80s tone and aesthetic. In brief, it’s hardly the sort of thing that one would expect to resonate with the internet generation. So needless to say, it surprised a great many people when songs from the short began showing up on videos posted to the social media website TikTok.

“Possibly in Michigan” had received some internet attention in the past, beginning in mid-2015, when a clip of the film was posted to the popular subreddit /r/creepy, subsequently appearing on the front page of Reddit. But it was through its use in TikTok videos that it attained what could be called widespread notice. A sixteen-year-old TikTok user named Vris Dillard started the trend by posting a video of herself lip-synching a portion of the film’s melodic dialogue. The absurd nature of the source material clearly resonated with the app’s young users, many of whom started making their own videos using “Possibly’s audio. The result was a burst of mainstream interest in Condit’s work that, given its abstract nature, would be unusual at any point in time. In the weeks following the TikTok trend, Condit’s official YouTube channel received around 4,000 new subscribers, and her weekly view count temporarily shot up more than tenfold.

TikTok, a social media app primarily featuring videos of users lip-synching to popular songs, has a user base consisting primarily of teenagers and twenty-somethings. For better or for worse, it’s a brand with inextricable ties to Generation Z . To see a piece of weird cinema crafted in the early 80s—especially one so deeply steeped in then-contemporary aesthetics and social concerns— gain popularity on such a platform makes it clear that cinematic weirdness, done properly, has an inter-generational appeal that we’ve yet to properly tap into.

“Possibly in Michigan” is hardly the only example of this phenomenon. Weirdness and absurdism are recurring features in meme culture and viral phenomena, and surrealism is probably one of the most prominent features of internet-based humor (right behind self-awareness and self-deprecation). As a result, many millennials and Gen Z’ers raised on the internet have come across some of the 20th century’s finest examples of weird cinema in piecemeal form: stills and clips that caught other users’ fancy.

My personal first encounter with Begotten was in the late 2000s, through a still frame of the opening scene. It had been posted, without context (along with a litany of other, far more underwhelming “scary” images), to a webpage of “creepypasta”, the digital age’s own iteration of horror literature.

At around the same time, a video appeared on YouTube, claiming to be an authentic version of “The Grifter”, an urban legend begun on 4chan about a supposedly “cursed” video that could drive viewers insane. In actuality, the video consisted mostly of heavily edited clips from Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik.

Virality has proved a boon for weird movie trailers, as well—many of which, in the past, would likely have only been seen at specialized screenings and art film festivals. Such was the case with the infamous After Last Season. Prior to the internet, it’s unlikely that this painfully amateur-looking trailer would have been screened anywhere. When enthusiasts uploaded to freely accessible video sites like Apple’s trailer page, however, it quickly found its audience: morbidly fascinated internet users befuddled by the surreal ineptitude of what they were seeing. It was pretty much everything that internet users of the time adored: completely absurd, and laughably amateurish (“cringey,” in the argot). The result, of course, was a surge of interest in a disastrous film that could never have come from any community of “serious” cinephiles. Reviled though the movie was, and still is, After Last Season would likely never have found an audience of any kind were it not for internet culture’s fascination with bile.

The implications are clear: if weird cinema is to survive in our tumultuous modern age, it might do best to market itself through memes, viral phenomena, and other mediums that catch the attention of the internet’s youngsters. They may not be familiar with names like or , but they share an appreciation for the absurd and the irreverent that, properly tapped in to, could help raise a whole new generation of weird-cinema auteurs.

THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

His name may not exactly be celebrated among cinephiles, but ‘s impact on the mid-20th century movie scene is undeniable. Growing up in an environment of circus performers and vaudevillians, Murray made a fortune in the 1950s and 1960s by importing low-budget family films (among other genres) from Mexico and Europe, dubbing them in English, and re-releasing them on the US market, showing them at cheap weekend screenings. Providing affordable afternoon film screenings aimed specifically at children (and at pre-digital age parents looking for a way to keep the kids occupied for a few hours) earned Murray the title “King of the Kiddie Matinee.”

Poster for K. Gordon Murray's Little Red Riding Hood and the MonstersBut besides revolutionizing the concept of the children’s matinee, Murray also inadvertently assisted in the creation of a certain subgenre of film that flourished in and around the 1960s —one which, though rarely discussed, is the source of some of cinema’s finest examples of unintentional weirdness.

This particular subgenre has never been given an official name, but the term “grindhouse children’s films”, coined by internet critic Brad “Cinema Snob” Jones, encompasses its nature quite well. With their grainy visuals and audio, hokey acting, and flimsy sets, these movies do indeed call to mind the grindhouse cinema aesthetic. The films’ content, meanwhile, are clearly crafted for a kid audience. This dissonance results in distinct examples of mid-century cinematic weirdness, some of which have made it into 366’s Canon.

While a many entries in this genre were the work of Murray himself, many more were made in his wake, churned out at minimal cost to take advantage of the easy profits of the matinees Murray had helped invent. Perhaps one of the most bizarre (and egregious) was 1965’s Fun In Balloon Land. Produced by Giant Balloon Parades Inc., and the sole directorial credit of Joseph M. Sonneborn Jr., this little absurdity pushes itself to 52 minutes by poorly slapping together two unrelated segments. One consists of a young boy wandering around a cavernous warehouse filled with assorted parade balloons (which, with their vast sizes, bulbous shapes, and poorly-painted features, are frankly the stuff of children’s nightmares) and holding awkward conversations with them; the other is a recording of a Thanksgiving-themed balloon parade with a narrator gushing over the (equally ugly) floats Continue reading THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

CAPSULE: JACOB’S LADDER (2019)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: David M. Rosenthal

STARRING: Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nicole Beharie

PLOT: Returning home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, army surgeon Jacob Singer begins to suspect that his brother Isaac, whom he saw die in the line of duty, may in fact still be alive.

Still from Jacob's Ladder (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jacob’s Ladder rarely ventures beyond the borders of a psychological thriller that occasionally dips its toe in horror-ish imagery. As a remake, there is, unsurprisingly, nothing about its occasional dabbles in weirdness that the original didn’t do better (and weirder).

COMMENTS: In an era where unneeded remakes are more common than ever, it’s easy to forget that films like ’s The Thing, ’s The Fly, and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers have proven that celebrated stories, redone right, can become classics all over again. Of course, this is dependent upon the remake taking some creative new approach to old material, ironing out the flaws of the original, or, at the very least, retelling the tale in a fresh and intriguing manner. Sadly, none of these things are to be found in 2019’s iteration of Jacob’s Ladder.

Well, perhaps that’s a little unfair. It’s hardly as if this new version is a stale shot-for-shot reiteration of ’s original. Indeed, the film makes efforts to take a new approach to the original premise—rather than centering on the title character’s PTSD, for instance, it’s Jacob’s brother Isaac who takes on the role of the damaged and paranoid military veteran (at least at first). It could be an appealing angle—an opportunity to take the original’s central theme of accepting the finality of death, and approach it from the perspective of a grieving family member rather than the dying individual.

Unfortunately, while this remake takes the time to work in a few basic plot elements (and some recreated shots) from the original, it’s uninterested in engaging with the source film’s spirit. As a result, where the 1990 film was about the necessity of letting go and accepting death when the time comes—using chilling imagery and a thriller plot to communicate this point—the remake instead chooses to treat the surface-level plot as the film’s be-all and end-all. It expands upon—and, in many ways, builds itself on—the “conspiracy thriller/experimental drug” subplot, despite that being anything but the central point of the story (and arguably the script’s weakest element). Likewise, the cinematography and backdrops have a bland, Lifetime-movie feel to them, none evoking the original’s bleak and claustrophobic decay. And while grotesque imagery may not be inherently necessary to make an effective psychological horror, the fact that this film’s only attempt to evoke the sensation of fear and paranoia amidst a hellish urban landscape is to smear a little acne-like makeup on the occasional extra is very noticeable.

Like so many remakes before (and no doubt after) it, the main problem plaguing 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder is that it simply never convinces us that it needs to exist. Everything that made the first so intriguing—the mystery, the surreal horror, the underlying theme of accepting death—is dumbed down, for little discernible reason. Instead, we’re treated to a standard-issue TV movie that would have been just as unremarkable under a different name.

As its own stand-alone film, Jacob’s Ladder could have made for a decent, if ultimately forgettable, psychological thriller that included some cursory examinations of the effects of PTSD. As it is, however, by usurping the name of Lyne’s classic, 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder comes off as thinking far too highly of itself, riding the coattails of a far superior psychological drama despite sharing nothing but the most basic, shallowest elements with it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The new ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is less strange and scary, and more mindlessly action-packed. It doesn’t feel like a dream. It’s more like hearing a stranger describe a dream.”–Noel Murray, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BLOODSUCKER’S HANDBOOK (2012)

AKA Enchiridion (B&W version)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: An unassuming campus priest is asked to help interrogate a prisoner who proclaims himself a vampire, then is forced to embark on a quest to hunt him down after he escapes.

Still from Bloodsucker's Handbook (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This seemingly simple shoestring-budget vampire tale takes a roundabout turn midway through, turning into an absurd neo-noir set in a world only vaguely similar to our own.

COMMENTS: In retrospect, I’m actually glad I watched Bloodsucker’s Planet before this one. Where Planet made me conscious of the issues that arise when a low budget film tries to tackle a concept outside its resources, Handbook left me appreciative of films that embrace their limited resources, using them to enhance the effectiveness—and, in this case, the weirdness—of the concept.

Clearly looking to spring its weird side on an unsuspecting audience, Bloodsucker’s Handbook starts out about as ordinary as a low budget tale of a modern vampire can get: Father Noah is approached by a group of sharp-suited G-men, who ask for his help questioning the film’s resident vampire overlord, Condu. The first half or so of the film is (primarily) concerned with this interrogation; and, simple as it is, it demonstrates ideal filmmaking sensibilities for a limited-resource indie production like this one. Working on a minimal scale, the film embraces its limitations, allowing a handful of actors and sets to carry the film.

And carry it they do. Or at the very least, one of them does. Despite his limited screentime, Jeremy Herrera, as Condu, really couldn’t be better cast. Whereas Planet’s villain had the air of a classic, an vampiric count, courteous and urbane, Condu has a more Orlok-like demeanor: leering, menacing, and blatantly evil, yet at the same time, strangely charming, in his shifty way. Condu takes charge of the interrogations right away, his delightfully evil presence dominating the screen. While Cory W Ahre’s performance as Father Noah is perhaps a little flat and understated, his passive bearing works well in these scenes as a counterpart to Herrera’s charisma. The two of them form a wonderful dynamic that genuinely sparks in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room.

It’s around the film’s halfway point, however-–-when Condu escapes, kidnapping Father Noah’s illicit lover for leverage-–-that things take a turn for the extremely bizarre. Father Noah heads out in pursuit of Condu, and as we see more of Bloodsucker’s Handbook‘s world (which suddenly takes on a distinctively noirish tone), we learn that it is far less ordinary than it seemed at first glance. Dinosaurs and anthropomorphic animals mingle with humans in seedy bars, and sucking on toads is an epidemic addiction. At this point, it becomes clear that the film’s setting, which at first seemed quite ordinary, if somewhat retro, is in fact a bizarre alternate version of our own world.

This, of course, poses the danger of Handbook running into the same issues as Planet, undermining its coherence and effectiveness in an effort to tackle concepts bigger than its budget will allow for. However, much like the rest of the film, Handbook’s approach to its setting is self-aware; rather than attempting to delve deeply into the intricate workings of this bizarre world, it reveals its oddities in an almost incidental manner, showcasing them in casual shots. Like the protagonist, we only give them a brief glance before continuing on our journey. And like any good, weird indie ought to, Handbook embraces its limited resources and uses them to enhance the weirdness. The various non-human characters are represented by stop-motion figures, whose crude and janky motions lend them an unreal quality that fully immerses us in the feeling that this is a world unlike our own. (In one brilliantly self-aware sequence, the vampire’s historical origins are related in a stop-motion sequence that leaves the animator’s hands in the shots.)

That’s not to say that everything about the film’s second half is what I’d call precisely the right direction for the film to have taken. For one thing, it would have been nice if some of the weirdness of the setting had been at least vaguely hinted at earlier on. (In my opinion, rewatch value and post-viewing clarity are some of the most gratifying aspects of weird cinema.) More significantly, I regretted that showcasing the bizarre setting came at the cost of relegating Condu, easily the film’s strongest presence, to the background. Ahre’s performance simply isn’t strong enough to carry the narrative on its own; and while Valentine, the hard-boiled anthropomorphic dog P.I. that he hires to help him track down Condu, is an intriguing character, he simply isn’t enough to fill the void left by Herrera’s absence.

Still, Bloodsucker’s Handbook is an intriguing effort, and most assuredly the better sort of weird indie effort. I do think that the subsequent prequel grows a tad too ambitious and loses sight of what made the original film work; but nonetheless, I do hope that director Mark Beal continues this series and develops the unusual world it is set in… especially if he intends to continue the trend of including a token anthropomorphic animal who talks like a hardened noir character in every movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… despite the low quality Beal has shaped surrealistic tackiness into a thrilling dark horror film experience, probably most prudently undertaken with some absinthe on hand.”–Bradley Gibson, Film Threat (DVD)

366 UNDERGROUND: BLOODSUCKER’S PLANET (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Beal

FEATURING: , , Adrienne Dobson, Joe Grisaffi,

PLOT: Responding to a distress signal, the crew of a cargo spaceship find themselves on a remote mud-harvesting planet inhabited by the charming Bartlett, who harbors a dark secret.

Still from Bloodsucker's Planet (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While it’s difficult to tell the deliberate weirdness from simple budgetary limitations, there’s no denying that this film’s minimalistic approach to its seemingly simple tale of vampires in space gives rise to some creepy and trippy visuals.

COMMENTS: The idea of vampires in a science fiction setting has a great deal of promise, but it’s been largely restricted to B-movies. It’s hardly a more ridiculous conceit than that of many films that break box office records. Yet personally, my sole encounters with the genre have been 1985’s Lifeforce, a film whose genuinely intriguing concepts were hard to take seriously thanks to the film’s needless sexualization, and Dracula 3000, an embarrassing bore from South African Darrell Roodt.

Point is, Bloodsucker’s Planet—which, really, spells out its whole concept right there in the title—has a promising premise right off the bat. It’s true that there are parts of it that, through no fault of the filmmakers, I probably didn’t fully understand (I unfortunately never saw Bloodsucker’s Handbook, the film that this is a prequel to; and I’m not especially familiar with 60s-era sci fi, from which Planet draws many cues); but still, I can recognize a solid and underutilized concept when I see one.

Bloodsucker’s Planet evokes the classics right from the opening, with the crew of a small cargo ship responding to a distress signal that leads them to the isolated planet of Mara, home to an abandoned mud harvesting operation now occupied only by the charming Bartlett and his gynoid assistant Adrianna. The sci fi parallels to the classic vampire tale are evident almost at once. The solitary Bartlett has that gentlemanly charm and likeability befitting the more romantic sort of vampire overlord (though he himself doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the condition); Adrianna brings to mind one of Dracula’s concubines; the somber graveyard on the planet’s surface evokes traditional horror imagery; and the vampiric disease, it seems, is spread by a native species closely resembling (and, indeed, explicitly referred to as) bats.

Unfortunately, this intriguing setup, which promises a sci-fied take on a classically Gothic setup, ends up feeling underexploited. A big reason is clearly the limitations of the budget.

I don’t look down upon a film for having a low budget. I don’t think any fan of arthouse or independent cinema could ever justify such an attitude. But I do think that, to execute certain concepts, a certain level of resources is required. Low budget charm is all well and good; but sometimes, a film’s resources can be so limited that a great portion of its central concept gets lost. And in this case, the plain sets and scenery don’t evoke a far-distant future to any significant degree. And while this might be forgivable in a film where the  setting was more incidental, it becomes noticeable in a movie that is centered on the novelty of “vampires in space.”

There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, where the limited budget evokes the setting in a creative, surrealistic manner (most prominently in several brief shots of uncanny, slightly-off miniature models of characters wandering the planet’s surface or hurtling through space). Moreover, there’s a classic subplot centered on Adrianna struggling to reconcile her emotions with her artificial nature, and all that. I get the sense that it’s there to reinforce the connection to classic science fiction; but despite taking up a good portion of the film’s midsection, it doesn’t go anywhere or relate to the plot in any significant manner (though, not being an expert in classic vampire lore, I’m more than ready to admit I might be missing a reference). If nothing else, I’d have appreciated a few more scenes of the wisecracking space roach; sure, he also had little bearing on the central plot, but he was far and away the most entertaining character.

As much as I genuinely hate saying this about any indie effort, I do feel that Bloodsucker’s Planet attempts to tackle a concept a bit beyond the reach of its resources. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad effort by any means—there are moments where that surreal shoestring charm does its job, and Joe Grisaffi, at the very least, takes to his role with an elegant charisma. But all in all, Bloodsucker’s Planet has more promising potential than solid execution.

Either way, Planet made me more than a little curious to check out Bloodsucker’s Handbook—a film which, allegedly, was far weirder than this one. It struck me that embracing the inherent weirdness of the premise could have spiced up Bloodsucker’s Planet and helped it overcome its limitations. After all, weirdness is one of the few things that, personally, I don’t believe can be held back by budgetary constraints.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewers who love such recent mind-bending indie retro outings as Joe Badon’s The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Drew Bolduc’s Assassinaut (2019) are bound to have a blast with Bloodsucker’s Planet, which is an absolute delight from before its ultracool animated opening credits to its postcredits cracker jack.”–Joseph Perry, Horror Fuel (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson, Fred Wolf

FEATURING: Voices of , Joan Gerber, , Andy Devine, Frank Nelson

PLOT: A young clockwork mouse and his father find themselves lost in the world, encountering a host of eccentric characters.

Still from The Mouse and His Child (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Taking on the appearance of a standard-issue children’s animation, The Mouse and His Child casually delves into such topics as philosophy, destiny, and the search for infinity, all represented through a world absurd even by the standards of cartoon logic.

COMMENTS: The 1970s were a tumultuous time for animated cinema in the west. was making his scandalous debut, and films like Coonskin and Fritz the Cat were introducing the once-unthinkable notion that animated films clearly crafted for adults could, in fact, not only exist, but have a genuine market. Animated movies aimed at children remained dominated by Disney, who didn’t exactly release their most iconic features in this particular decade. Younger upstarts like Pixar and (ugh) Dreamworks hadn’t yet emerged to contest Disney’s place as the prime source of children’s animation.

That’s one of the reasons why The Mouse and His Child is so noteworthy. Not only did it have the audacity to enter into the heavily monopolized animation market, but it did so with a movie that took a vastly different approach to children’s entertainment.

It ought to be said that kids, especially ones raised on today’s media, probably won’t enjoy The Mouse and His Child all that much. But as a curiosity piece—an example of just how remarkably eccentric children’s animation can be while still technically fitting into that category—it’s really quite priceless.

I’ve not read the book that this movie was based on, nor have I read any of Russell Hoban’s other works; but if this adaptation is a faithful reflection of the source material, it’s hardly surprising that it was penned by an author who also dabbled in magical realism and had extensive experience writing for adults. Themes well outside the interests of any child dominate the narrative, and the film’s approach to the nature and structure of reality is one that, while not exactly elaborate, has more depth to it than is normal for a children’s film.

The story opens in a toy shop, where the titular mouse and his child—a pair of clockwork toys—have newly arrived. Here, all the clockwork mechanisms live under the strict leadership of a ghostly grandfather clock, who robotically instructs them that they are to do only what they are “wound to do” and that love, family, and free thought are not accommodated for under “clockwork rules.” It isn’t long, however, before an accidental spill off the table and into a bin sends the mice accidentally carted off out into the world, where they head off on a clearly allegorical quest to become “self-winding.”

On their journey, the Mouse and his Child encounter the various oddities of this world, which might be best described as akin to The Animals of Farthing Wood if Farthing Wood happened to be the campus of a liberal arts university. A crooked rat cons and swindles his way through the movie (like any good cartoon rodent) while delivering every line with a thespian trill. A would-be clairvoyant frog struggles to reconcile his sincere belief in the concept of destiny with his fraudulent fortune-telling racket. A shrew resides in a hole by a pond, obsessing over abstract mechanical theories whilst shrugging off the plight of the forlorn clockwork creatures whom his talents could aid. And in a lake, an aged turtle ponders furiously over the Droste image on the label of a discarded dog food tin, convinced that some great universal truth lies beyond “the last visible dog”.

What really sets The Mouse and His Child apart is not the barriers it breaks, but rather the absurd middle ground that it occupies, one so difficult to precisely pin down that it could be considered the sole example of its own sub-genre. Far too introspective and philosophical for children’s entertainment, yet never approaching the edginess and vulgarity typical of “adult” animation, it resembles, more than anything else, an absurd experiment: a bold attempt to marry philosophy and animation. Mixing these two was unheard of at the time, and even in our more explorative day and age, there are few folks out there who flirt with the notion of exploring infinity and universal truth within the format of children’s animation. How well it works is a matter of debate better left to those better versed in philosophical matters than I; but there is little denying that, even now, over four decades later, with the boundaries of animation pushed much farther than once they were, there are still very few—if any—films quite like this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a curious mishmash overall, well animated yet not entirely satisfying, whether you have read the book or not. The sense that there’s a lot going on underneath the surface lingers, however, a need to find meaning in it all.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: METROPIA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Tarik Saleh

FEATURING: Voices of , , , ,

PLOT: The world’s oil supplies are drying up, and Europe is now connected by a network of underground railroads known as Metropia, where a young man named Roger begins to hear a voice in his head.

Still from Metropia (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The standard tale of dystopian grimness and corporate conspiracy is given a fresh twist via a esque art style, shampoo-based mind control, and rejected asylum seekers launched away in rocket chairs.

COMMNETS: I’m told that director Tarik Saleh’s most recent feature outing—The Nile Hilton Incident, set in revolutionary Egypt—was a stellar piece of neo-noir crime drama. I personally avoided it, since modern politics gives me a migraine, but it had enough impact to net Saleh a directing gig on the acclaimed “Westworld” series.

When Metropia came out, though, Saleh was still largely an unknown; and fittingly, the film—despite clearly being intended for an international audience—made little impact either inside or outside Scandinavia; after all, by 2009, neither dystopian tales, nor animated films aimed at adults quite carried the novelty they once did.

But in many ways, Metropia seems quite well-aware of this. Really, perhaps that’s one of the best things that can be said about this film; it never tries to be more than it is. It isn’t under the illusion that the tale it tells of resource depletion, corporate conspiracy, and a bleak, excessively urbanized future is especially new; as a result, it makes an effort to avoid jamming its finger into the viewer’s chest the way some such films might do. To be sure, the grimness of the world that mankind has created for himself is still very much evoked—a half-crazed man in the subway soapboxes about the days when seasons still existed, and Juliette Lewis’s character laments how every city looks identical nowadays—but for the most part, the film clearly assumes that, by now, you’re familiar with the sort of desolate and drained world that humanity is rapidly heading toward, and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out in excessive detail.

Instead, the plot concerns itself chiefly with two things. The first is an elaborate conspiracy, implemented by the owners of the metro, Trexx, to read and control the minds of the European public via a leading brand of dandruff shampoo. The second is a standard love triangle.

The conspiracy plotline might be lacking in certain aspects. It follows a tried and tested structure, and, at the film’s climax, is brought down a little too easily. Nonetheless, the film seems conscious of this flaw, opting to evoke this familiar tale of corporate conspiracy in an unpretentious manner that focuses on its impact upon a single isolated individual, while portraying it in a quietly tongue-in-cheek manner (to reiterate: the mind-control is accomplished by the use of dandruff shampoo).

Of course, there are points when the comedic undertone is overemphasized (most notably in a brief, almost cartoon-like sequence, largely unrelated to anything else in the film, where the protagonist watches a live game show where rejected asylum seekers are launched off a bridge from spring chairs). But even in those moments, the delivery is deadpan enough for the film to retain its general sense of grounded self-awareness.

The love triangle, meanwhile, doesn’t do anything new with the formula, and the film, seemingly aware of this as well, doesn’t provide it much in the way of either attention or screentime. The subplot does offer a decent means of giving the protagonist a stake in the world, and a reason to hurry home from his clandestine investigations.

But as many guess before even watching it, the film’s defining characteristic is its singular animation. Through an unusual blend of CGI and motion capture, the characters, with their outsized heads, uncanny faces, and strangely puppet-like gait, evoke a digitized form of Terry Gilliam’s cutout animation style, with the characters bringing to mind sombre and gloomy bobbleheads. It’s unique, to be sure, and not in a way that feels gimmicky. It suggests a strangely harmonious meeting between the comically exaggerated and the grimly realistic, which fits with the film’s tone of cynical social commentary undercut by tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Considered in terms of its individual parts, Metropia might be mistaken for nothing special. It’s a fairly standard conspiracy thriller, in a fairly standard dystopian setting, in an unusual animation style. But taken together, these aspects create a film that, while perhaps not ground-breaking, is refreshingly self-aware in its approach to a familiar tale, telling it in a way that delicately spices up this grounded and grim tale of a dark future with an overlay of surreal, deadpan humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more interesting for its ideas and atmosphere than its story, but Saleh’s weird imagery and alienated animation style—a strange marriage of photo collage, CGI sophistication and cut-out animation with figures that suggest proletariat kewpie dolls—creates a unique world.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (contemporaneous)