All posts by Bryan Pike

268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

Known as Dead Alive in North America, Braindead elsewhere

“You know what they are saying about you don’t you? You’ve got funny in the head! A real bloody weirdo!”–Roger, Dead Alive

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Stuart Devenie

PLOT: An explorer discovers a Sumatran “Rat-Monkey” on Skull Island; the creature is safely housed in a Wellington zoo. The animal escapes and bites Lionel’s overbearing mother, who becomes a zombie and infects anyone she comes across. Lionel then juggles the advances of the local shop owner’s daughter Paquita and the machinations of his blackmailing uncle with the zombies mounting in his basement.

Still from Dead Alive (Braindead) (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Written before the controversial puppet black comedy Meet the Feebles, but filmed afterward. This was the first script co-written with longtime Jackson collaborator and partner Frances Walsh. The story originated with the third credited co-writer, Stephen Sinclair, who originally conceived of it as a stage play satirizing New Zealand society.
  • Partly funded by taxpayer dollars through the New Zealand Film Commission.
  • The film won Best Screenplay at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards in 1993. It won Best Film (and Best Special Effects) at the 1993 edition of the Fantasporto Film Festival for genre pictures.
  • Released as Braindead in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries, but as Dead Alive in North America to avoid confusion with the practically identically titled 1990 horror film Brain Dead (directed by Adam Simon).
  • The uncut version was banned for extreme violence in several countries, including Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.
  • Came in it #91 on Time Out’s 2016 poll of the greatest horror movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Grand Guignol finale where Lionel cuts down a horde of zombies with a lawnmower. Three hundred liters of fake blood were used in this scene.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sumatran Rat-Monkey; zombie baby; the Lord’s ass-kicker

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: From the seemingly benign and placid surface of 1950’s New Zealand society, director Peter Jackson spews forth undead geriatrics consuming German Shepherds, amorous zombies who impregnate each other, sentient viscera, oedipal vaginal imagery on an epic scale, and an inexplicable excursion to the local park with a zombie baby. The invention and gory slapstick of this film are comparable to a Looney Tunes episode where Wyle E. Coyote falls into a spool of razor wire. Or perhaps the antics of and the Keystone Cops defending themselves from an undead invasion after ingesting speed-balls.


Original trailer for Dead Alive

COMMENTS: I fondly remember Braindead from my 1990’s adolescence, days of VHS and weekends spent with friends, trying to outdo Continue reading 268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

LIST CANDIDATE: COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, Lauren Wolkstein

FEATURING: Will Blomker, Ryan Cassata, Frank Mosley, Tonya Pinkins
PLOT: In this experimental compilation, five filmmakers adapt each other’s dreams into short films.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As both a film depicting dreams and as a formal experiment, the project presents a pressing case for inclusion on the list of the weirdest films ever made. There are a number of arresting images within this film and some truly bizarre moments.

COMMENTS: Dreams have always proved a tantalizing subject for filmmakers. Arriving from the unfettered unconscious mind with surreal imagery and associations to codify our thoughts, feelings and memories, dreams have forever enticed filmmakers to realize these bewildering experiences on screen. However, translating this phenomenon presents a number of challenges. One is budgetary, because of the opulent settings and fantastical creatures that can be found in a dream. Another is sensory: despite film’s ability to engross us it remains an outside object, never as immersive as the internal, subjective experience of dreaming.

Successful translators of the experience, such as , recognize the limitations of film immersion and focus on pacing and juxtaposition of image and sound to recreate the atmosphere and “feel” of dreams. Surrealism as an artistic movement is deeply tied to the unconscious and dreams, so it is hardly surprising that one other successful interpreter is Surrealist filmmaker , who overcame budgetary restraints through jarring combinations of everyday objects and people in unconventional ways.

Film compilations also come with their own separate challenges. Unless there is a strong through line each segment will have a different tone and pace, and invariably some episodes will be more satisfying than others. Throw in some deeply personal dreams as subject matter and you could have a hotchpotch of cinema that doesn’t gel together as a whole. Despite the technical sophistication and invention of each filmmaker—none of whom are familiar to me, so I can’t comment on the clash/serendipitous mix of subject and filmmaking styles within—I’m afraid this is the case here.

The film opens with its linking device, a man addressing the camera and attempting to hypnotize us, luring us to sleep and imploring us to lower our resistance, as dream logic demands. It is an effective device to prep us for the experience, if, like most wraparounds, narratively weak on its own. There follows some pretty if perfunctory animation from Maya Edelman before the film begins proper with arguably its most successful segment, “Black Soil, Green Grass,” directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone from a dream by Lauren Wolkstein. Combining Lynch and Buñuel’s techniques, it successfully creates a surreal, dream-like atmosphere through unusual juxtapositions of the everyday: a watchtower that inexplicably pipes a recording of a man counting sheep through loudspeakers, a man encircled Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS (2016)

CAPSULE: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick

FEATURING: , , , Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley

PLOT: A successful, hedonistic screenwriter lost in the indulgences and vacuity of Hollywood searches for love and meaning.

Still from Knight of Cups (2015)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: While Malick’s approach to cinema remains characteristically unconventional, despite the philosophical narration and existential questions, the film still charts as a fairly standard dramatic narrative.

COMMENTS: “To be a philistine or not to be a philistine?” That is the question that troubles reviewers when approaching the films of Terrence Malick. When a film maker is consciously addressing questions such as the meaning of life –a question in which every person on this planet has a stake—if the reviewers response isn’t positive, they can find themselves asking the questions: did the film not speak to me because it was executed poorly, or because the message was over my head? Is it a load of pretentious rubbish, or did I simply not get it?

All questions of framing, scripting and pacing aside, the answer––particularly when it comes to films that address existential concerns like those of Malick, or —is always subjective. The film either meant something to you, or it didn’t. (I am thinking of this site’s controversial review for Possession, a film I personally loved but which the reviewer hated). Where I saw a visceral film with an impassioned performance from and unsettling, demonic imagery depicting a relationship imploding, the reviewer saw a pretentious, vapid stream of hollow images. Technique aside—which thankfully isn’t so subjective and can be argued—the film either spoke to you, or didn’t.

Did Knight of Cups speak to me? To perfectly honest, no. Does this mean I simply didn’t “get it”? Possibly, but again, considering how subjective a film experience is, not to mention how subjective and open-ended Malick’s images are, does it matter? Every filmgoer brings their own meanings to a film based on their own experiences, very often bringing associations that are far removed from the film makers original intent, if they’re even prepared to talk about that (and we all know how Malick has addressed this question: radio silence). Is Cups a load of pretentious rubbish? Again, the question of meaning-making is entirely dependent on the viewer. I was able to find meanings and recurring messages in the film, even if I didn’t particularly respond to the actual film experience.

So what is Cups about? On the surface, this is a straightforward tale of a successful screenwriter Rick (who doesn’t do a lick of actual writing in the film, mind you), who experiences inertia and nihilism amongst various mansion parties and trappings of Hollywood. He has relationships with six women, including his ex-wife (Cate Continue reading CAPSULE: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)

LIST CANDIDATE: SYMBOL (2009)

Shinboru

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli

PLOT: A Japanese man wakes up in an enormous white chamber whose walls and floor are littered with cherubic phalluses; meanwhile a Mexican luchador, “Escargot Man,” prepares for a wrestling match.

Still from Symbol (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The main narrative, following the action in the white room, is so absolutely removed from reality it demands a place on the List, while the Mexican wrestling scenes remain incongruous and weirdly exotic throughout.

COMMENTS: It’s difficult to talk about why Symbol is so arresting and oddly rewarding without spoiling details of the story or the reveals near the film’s end. Suffice to say the two seemingly unrelated narratives come together in a most unexpected and ridiculous way, and the torture experienced by the Japanese protagonist in the white room leads to a truly transcendent revelation by the film’s end.

The film is structured under three headings: “Learning, Practice and Future.” Learning refers to the rough education the Japanese man receives in the white room from the mischievous owners of the Cherubic phalluses, while the particulars of Practice and Future I’ll leave viewers to discover on their own.

Much of the early joy of the film involves watching Matsumoto interact with the white room and the objects released therein, seeing his mounting frustration at the “bait and switch” as the Cherubs deliver alternately helpful or useless items. They give him an endless stream of sushi rolls, but no soy sauce until after he’s eaten the very last one; 3D glasses direct him to press a particular button, only to have an enormous Cherub behind break wind on him. Another scene sees him releasing an endless pile of chopsticks before he finally presses a different phallus, sending an office trolley careening into his shin. This comedic torment in the vein of silent film comics like or Harold Lloyd continues until Matsumoto recognizes a means of escape…only to be led to earth-shattering alternatives.

There is very little to fault in this film; from its production values to its execution it is equally unique, vibrant and visually arresting. The pacing is surprisingly jaunty for an episodic film, and it actually rewards a re-watch to see how all the various threads build towards the film’s close. Some viewers may find the ridiculous payoffs a little too surreal to be satisfying; to them I can only recommend the consolation to be found in the philosophical treatise “In Praise of Silly,” the book never written by comedian Mike Myers’s father, who believed silliness “was our natural state, and we only get serious to get to silly.” Symbol contains moments of textbook Japanese cinematic weirdness.

A possible weak element of the film (other than two unnecessary moments of flatulence humor) could be identified in Matsumoto’s performance; while his timing is excellent and he works as a hapless, unassuming everyman, his constant screaming is often irritating. A more skilled slapstick performer like , Lee Evans or Rowan Atkinson could have made the physical comedy transcendent and ballet-like rather than merely solid and amusing. This is a rare case where I would not mind a U.S. remake.

I know little about director and star Matsumoto, other than he is one half of a comic duo—the boke or “funny man” of a team called “Downtown”—on Japanese television, just like his contemporary Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Hana-bi, Violent Cop) was at the beginning of his career. The comparison to Kitano is apt due to the similar career trajectory the two men have followed, although Matsumoto only has four feature film directorial credits to his name and none of the Kitano’s international recognition—at least for the time being. Also, from a cursory YouTube glance, Matsumoto’s TV persona appears to be that of a histrionic, put-upon weed (the character he develops here follows a similar vein) whereas Kitano’s comedy always came from his role as bully.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the most bizarre, impenetrable films of the year. That doesn’t mean it is not funny, intriguing and visually impressive, just don’t expect to come out being anything less than baffled.”–Owen Van Spall, “Eye for Film” (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by many people, but “Roy” was first when he advised us in 2010 “You gotta check out this flick ‘Symbol’ by the director of Big Man Japan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FEAR OF DARKNESS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Fitchett

FEATURING: Penelope Mitchell, Maeve Dermody, Aaron Pederson

PLOT: A young psychologist treats the suspect in a bizarre murder case and confronts a dark supernatural force in the girl’s unconscious.

Still from The Fear of Darkness (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird aspect of this horror film is the supernatural force of darkness. Otherwise this follows the naturalist form of the crime psychological thriller.

COMMENTS: If you believe in string theory, then in some parallel universe this film got all of its elements right and rose above the mediocre offering here. It probably even won an Oscar. First off, the alternate universe screenwriters would have researched the particulars of psychology rather than the Googled armchair-shrink efforts on display here—especially the vague experimental practices employed by Dr. Sarah Faithful to elicit trauma and screaming from murder suspect Skye Williams. Faithful’s Dr./cop friend defends these practices to unnerved observers with a dismissive “I trust her, she knows what she’s doing”.

Secondly, the producers would’ve hired a competent director who doesn’t pander to the hackneyed jump-scares that we’ve all seen a million times before, and who has a vision for the film beyond perfunctory soap opera camera set-ups and dark corners where special effects lurk. The kind of director who would have lifted the performances of seemingly credible actors, and who doesn’t make a genuine talent like Aaron Pederson look like he’s a year out of acting school. Again, screenwriters who deliver non-perfunctory dialogue would have assisted everyone in this department.

Through this combination of clever screenwriting and solid direction, tension would have been built and the audience would care about either Faithful or William’s fates, so that the M. Night Shyamalan-like twist ending of invented identity would hit home and register as deeply in the minds of the audience as the darkness is said to exist in Skye’s mind. Sadly we have no way of viewing that phenomenal parallel universe version of The Fear of Darkness, we only have the sad, wholly unremarkable version that exists in ours. Save yourself from the theoretical angst of “what could have been” and seek genuine scares in films like The Exorcist or The Haunting in Connecticut, films that succeed on their own terms rather than relying on the necessity of an infinite multiverse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as sinister and surreal concepts earn increasingly frequent mentions, reminding audiences that all is not as it appears, the film relishes its foreseeable twists as much as it does its formulaic conventions.”–Sarah Ward, ArtsHub (contemporaneous)

TORGO RISING: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ROY OF “MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO”

David Roy is a film director who subscribes to the cult of ‘Manos.’ So fervent is his devotion he has created his own prequel to the original film. If you haven’t yet seen Manos: The Hands of Fate, considered to be one of the worst films ever made, this fondly regarded dismal classic is in the public domain[1].

Download ‘Manos’: The Hands of Fate from the Internet Archive

In 1966, insurance and fertilizer salesman Hal Warren had a dream: to make a horror film about a cult in Texas that would make him incredibly rich. Shooting on a camera that could only record thirty seconds at a time and with no sound, instead he delivered a barely coherent, badly dubbed—if admittedly iconic and strangely unsettling—train wreck featuring inexplicably action-free sequences, clapper boards in frame, and a staccato-voiced servant with bulging knees who may or may not be a satyr.

Premiering to a baffled and frankly embarrassed audience —including stars Tom Neyman and his young daughter Jackey—Manos was screened once, then drifted into obscurity until uncovered by the bad-movie-roasting TV show . The episode featuring Manos went on to be one of the most popular episodes of the series and led to a resurgence of interest in this forgotten rough diamond.

The growing popularity of Manos has inspired a successful Kickstarter-funded restoration of the film, a video game, documentaries, a full length puppet stage play (“Manos: The Hands of Felt“), and numerous attempts at a sequel, including Jackie “Debbie” Neyman-Jones’ own Manos Returns, to be released later this year. Roy’s film will be the first prequel to the original Manos.

366 Weird Movies’ Bryan Pike spoke to Roy about his prequel Manos: The Rise of Torgo via a series of international emails.

366: How did you first come across the Manos phenomenon?

Production still from Manos: The Rise of TorgoDavid Roy: My first exposure to Manos was through “Mystery Science Theater 3000” way back in ’93. I used to watch the show all the time, and when I saw the Manos episode, I don’t know, somehow it rang familiar. The movie is the worst ever made yet it’s striking, you never forget it.

366: Before we get onto your film, can you tell me more about the cult of Manos? What other activities does the fanbase indulge in? For example are there regular gatherings for screenings of the film a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show where the audience recites dialogue and performs actions to accompany the onscreen action?

Roy: I haven’t seen anything remotely like Rocky Horror. The most I’ve seen is some cosplay at a comic convention. People love to quote the film, mostly Torgo’s lines “the Master does not approve” and Continue reading TORGO RISING: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ROY OF “MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO”

  1. Actually, the issue of who, if anyone, owns the copyright to Manos is still being contested. Hal Warren never put a copyright symbol on the original, film so it technically the film belongs to the public domain. In 2013 his son, Joe Warren, discovered that the screenplay had been copyrighted and believes this means the film itself is also copyrighted. However no precedent for this case exists, so the legal status of the film remains uncertain. []

CAPSULE: AIR DOLL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Hirokazu Koreeda

FEATURING: Doona Bae, Arata Iura, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri, Sumiko Fuji

PLOT: Nozomi, an inflatable sex doll, develops consciousness and comes to life, wandering through the streets while her owner is at work, encountering various lonely souls including a video store attendant, with whom she falls in love.

Still from Air Doll (2009)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The central conceit (and character) of the inflatable sex doll is the only weird element in this film. The people surrounding Nozomi and the contemporary Japanese setting are grounded in naturalism, positioning the film in the genre of magical realism rather than surrealism.

COMMENTS: The concept of an outsider or alien force experiencing human existence is a familiar trope in cinema. Ex Machina (2015), Her (2013), A.I. (2001), City of Angels (1998) and even Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) all explore similar concepts. In the main, these films present a robot or artificial intelligence evolving human characteristics, whereas Air Doll posits a less likely protagonist: an inflatable vinyl sex doll.

Nozomi, a “sexual surrogate” as she lamentably reminds us through the film, lives with her owner, Hideo, in modern urban Tokyo. She passively listens to his self-important ramblings about work (which we later learn are lies), and then later serves as an equally passive recipient to his sexual advances. The following morning, after Hideo leaves for work, Nozomi inexplicably comes to life (Nozomi describes the process as “finding a heart”) in a sequence where an animated puppet becomes actress Doona Bae, enjoying the sensual thrill of dripping water running over her hand. Her first thoughts on her newfound consciousness are “beau-ti-ful!,” but this will change by the film’s end.

Nozomi is a curiosity to those she encounters, but their reactions are no match for her own wonder at everything she sees. Even the garbage men fascinate her. Nozomi’s wonder and simple satisfaction with life remains a stark contrast to the thwarted happiness of the human characters throughout the film

Nozomi’s position as outsider is reinforced both by her status as an animated doll and the casting of Korean actress Bae in a Japanese film. This is purposeful casting by director Koreeda to throw his observations of modern urban life into sharper relief. Like Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” the satire or analysis of a culture is strengthened the more alien the presence of the other observing it. Bae, the alien in question, seems incapable of delivering a poor performance; even if the film is weak (witness the failed splendor of Cloud Atlas) she is always in top form and her portrayal here is no exception. Nozomi is by turns curious, ebullient, playful, saddened, sensual and emphatic. Her small, staccato, childlike walk in her French Maid’s dress is also a lovely touch, emphasizing Nozomi’s innocence and vulnerability.

Despite the potential here for an incisive and engaging investigation of modern Japanese life—and by extension human existence—the overall tone remains light and humorous , although the film does take a much darker turn in its final act. Even the bleaker aspects of the human characters’ lives fail to inspire sympathy because they are so underdeveloped (many of them we only see once or twice in small cutaways). You could argue the conceit of a sex doll coming to life is farcical and thus the comic tone is appropriate, but elsewhere Koreeda teases us with more involved drama (for example, Nozomi’s boss blackmailing her for sex) without ever really committing to it.

That the film is a slight work that sadly never lingers in the memory is evidenced by the lack of interviews and production materials surrounding it online. Even the links on its Wikipedia page are dead and its archived page on the Cannes Film Festival comes up with an “error.” This is not to say that the film doesn’t have very beautiful and tender moments: for example the gentle touch the old man asks Nozomi to place on his forehead, or Nozomi opening up a tear on her arm in order to smell the breath of her lover; its simply that there is nothing significant about the human experience mined in any great depth. Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) (1952) is a much more palpable and urgent examination of what it means to be human and why life is so precious. (I mention it only because the initial pleasure in life Nozomi experiences is similar to the renewed urgency found by Ikiru’s protagonist).

As a rumination on urban loneliness and inertia, defeated dreams and the loss of innocence transitioning to adulthood, this film is arguably successful; however in addressing the larger questions of what it means to human it falls flat, suffering from a lack of focus and peripheral characters in need of further development.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most interesting about the story is not its apparent oddness, but the fact it maintains a sense of fairy tale magic even while it’s set in a cold and seemingly hollow world.”–Sara Maria Vizcarrondo, Boxoffice Magazine

SECOND OPINION: NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991)

NOTE 1: We originally ruled Nothing but Trouble off consideration for the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, but Bryan Pike offers another opinion.

NOTE 2: Pete Trbovich made Nothing but Trouble his “Staff Pick.” The film now has an official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY: Dan Aykroyd

FEATURING: Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy

PLOT: Financial publisher Chris Thorne (Chase) meets lawyer Diane Lightson (Moore) and agrees to escort her to Atlantic City.  Along the way, Thorne makes a scenic detour to the decrepit mining town of Valkenvania, and failing to comply with a stop sign is pursued by local cop Dennis Valkenheiser (Candy) who then takes them before his 106-year-old grandfather, Judge Alvin Valkenheiser (Aykroyd).

Still from Nothing But Trouble (1991)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: While the film is equally bizarre in both conception and execution, the most baffling aspect is how writer-director-producer-star Aykroyd thought there would be an audience for this relentlessly grotesque, misfiring comic take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Haunted Mansion. The film is abundant with carnival-ride execution devices, adult-sized mutant babies, cleft palates, and sexually unsettling geriatric imagery. Although it has the typical story structure of an SNL alumni comedy a la Spies like Us, the imagery is truly macabre and surreal, and the tone so haphazardly uneven it’s like the film is nestled atop one of the Judge’s ball pits.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Aykroyd’s penis nose as hallucinated (?) by Chase during the revolting dinner scene.

COMMENTS: “The cat’s eyes’ll spin!” bellows the Judge from behind his clunkily automated courtroom as the bewildered captives look on. Their disconcerted reactions arguably reflect the response of viewers who happen upon this strange, forgotten oddity from the early nineties. Not gory enough to be a horror film and not eliciting sufficient laughs to be considered a comedy, this mawkishly executed film simply leaves one giggling nervously and asking, why?

Aykroyd’s creation in the arthritic, mummified, pontificating Judge Alvin is equivalent to giving the least appealing character of the Austin Powers franchise, Fat Bastard, his own film. Chevy Chase sleepwalks through his performance as snarky Thorne, and Demi Moore looks confused as to what she’s doing in the film at all. John Candy fares better as the put upon Cop, but his transvestite turn as the Officer’s sister is easy pantomime dame humor at its worst. The inexplicable presence of hip-hop group Digital Underground in Judge Alvin’s court, with a young Tupac Shakur in tow, seems intended to bring in the “young” audience by creating a signature tie-in hit tune like the titular song of Ghostbusters. I’m afraid the device wasn’t successful, neither in the film nor in real life; Nothing But Trouble had a $40 Million budget and made around $8 Million at the box office.

Once the movie reaches the Judge’s home any plotting or story gets thrown out the window in favor of a series of amusement ride set pieces: “The Bone Stripper” roller coaster which the Judge employs for execution, rooms which trap occupants inside, and even a moving Hallway that nearly crushes Chase and Moore. For all of these elaborate devices, including a slide that leads Chase into a pit of human bones, nothing significant happens in the middle of the film, leading to a sense of inertia and pointlessness about the whole proceeding. The human sized mutant babies (one of whom is also played by Aykroyd) disturb. They are filthy, ghoulish infants, attempting “cute” jokes which fall flat and playing cards with Moore, evidently to give her something to do at that point in the film.

By the time the climax rolls round and the cartoonish ending sends Chase through a wall leaving his outline behind, you’ll feel like you’ve been hit with an hour and a half of ugliness with no jokes to temper the horror. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains Aykroyd’s sole directorial outing and a truly weird piece of mainstream cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Aykroyd here has lovingly, meticulously created a hideous, grotesque nightmare world nobody in their right mind would want to visit the first time around, let alone return to.”–Nathan Rabin, Onion A.V. Club

READER RECOMMENDATION: MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH (2013)

Reader Recommendation by Bryan Pike

DIRECTED BY: Don Thacker

FEATURING: Adrian DiGiovanni, , Danielle Doetsch, Pete Giovagnoli, Ken Brown

PLOT: Ian Folivor, a depressed and reclusive 30-something, finds himself taking advice from a fungal growth in his bathroom after a failed suicide attempt.

Still from Motivational Growth (2014)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The film’s lead impossibly suspended horizontally while sucking greedily from a wall-mounted fungal teat, followed closely by the animatronic mold itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: That the protagonist communicates with a talking fungus is strange enough to warrant potential inclusion, but for a movie limited to the confines of an apartment this film takes on a truly epic and bizarre scope, with spore-induced hallucinations involving infomercials and B-grade science fiction TV shows, demonic TV repairmen, a bathroom murder and dismemberment, a sweet romantic sub-plot and by the film’s close, genuine questions as to what of the preceding 104 mins was real or imagined.

COMMENTS: “The Mold knows, Jack, The Mold knows…”

Normally when considering the first feature of an independent film director one makes allowances for certain technical shortcomings: out of focus shots, poor film stock, a bump in a dolly shot or two, things obvious to the seasoned film viewer but which are ignored in good faith and focus given to the storytelling or performances. There is no such necessity in this film, there are no such flaws to note. In terms of technical craft alone this is easily the most impressive debut I’ve seen from any feature director; the rich and developed performances and storytelling are equally impressive.

The aforementioned fungal teat sequence, the circuitous, overhead crane shots of Ian on his filthy couch, and even a quasi-bullet time shot of the lead falling in the bathroom; are all ambitious, complex shots which are executed effortlessly. The grimy, festering detritus of Ian’s depression made manifest in the scattered garbage filling his apartment is an impressive feat of art direction.

I’d classify it as an absurdist, theatrical, sitcom take on Enter the Void, at least in the sense of a post-death hallucinatory journey (or is it?). It features a shut-in who attempts suicide and is then given a new lease on life by an enormous fungus growing in his bathroom. “The Mold”, an animatronic puppet voiced by Jeffrey Combs, guides our protagonist back to a clean, regular life—if sucking from wall-mounted fungal teats, altercations with demonic TV repairmen, and dream sequences involving infomercials can be considered “regular”.

The puppet for “The Mold” is a refreshing break from the digital in our overly-CGI’ed times, reminiscent of the impressive practical effects from 80’s films like The Thing or The Howling. Jeffrey Comb’s assured, mellifluous voice is the perfect contrast to the wired, intense performance of Adrian Giovanni. The 8-bit music, while fitting the period (early 90’s) and the aesthetic of Thacker’s Imagos production company, is occasionally jarring compared to the action on screen. Although varied and amusing, the TV infomercials playing on Ian’s unit, “Kent” are perhaps the weakest aspect of the film; this satire of vapid and bombastic TV programming has been done better elsewhere, notably Fight Club, or, let’s be honest, the better moments of SNL. To Thacker’s credit it would be difficult at this stage to bring something fresh and inventive to such satire, given the sheer glut of both modern television programs and subsequent parodies.

Ian also merges with these TV programs in some kind of day dream or hallucination, with television’s Kent accusing Ian of betrayal, saying that he “looked after him” long before (the Mold?) did. In the overall context of the film it remains unclear whether Kent is a separate character and rival to the Mold for Ian’s allegiance. Is Kent—who often uses the same language as The Mold—merely an extension of it? The ambiguity employed is merely distracting, rather than serving as an engaging mystery within the film.

The only other complaint one could make of the film are that the level of technical innovation and impressive camera feats drop off towards the end (though this is more a reflection of the story taking prominence over on-screen auteur flourishes at that stage), and that the ambiguous ending leaves one feeling dissatisfied. At various points during the film it is hinted that Ian is dead (or at the very least that “someone” has died) and that our film experience is a hallucinatory afterlife trip inside Ian’s head. But this is arguably the least satisfying outcome or final premise for the film. Isn’t the buildup towards Ian’s “improvement” and the possibilities this direction takes us in (i.e. what are the Mold’s designs for Ian within the larger world outside the apartment?) more intriguing than “oh, Ian’s dead and this is him working things out in the afterlife as his corpse is consumed by mold”? I may have simply been hoping for a different film based on the initial premise than what transpired.

Ultimately, despite these minor misgivings, the film remains an impressive and vastly entertaining debut feature that rewards subsequent viewings for more details as to the nature of what we’ve witnessed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…you can categorize Motivational Growth under “The Weird,” and I mean that as a true compliment.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contmeporaneous)