All posts by Pamela De Graff

I live in smoggy southern California where I am an arts major at a state university. My cinematic interests include dark movies like moody, brooding horror, the morbid, the macabre, the uncanny, occult films and black satire. I prefer movies with well executed plots which make me think.

LIST CANDIDATE: THE VOICES (2014) [PLUS “7TH DAY” AND “ENTER THE DANGEROUS MIND”]

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith

PLOT: A likable schizophrenic struggles to corner reality when he accidentally kills the object of his affections after going off his meds.

THE VOICES
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  The Voices is comic in the black style of Blood Diner (1987), yet unexpectedly hits us with grim, sometimes even poignant, perspectives—then throws us curve balls, such as when the movie bursts into a stylized dance number to represent a character’s transition to the afterlife.

COMMENTS: There’s no shortage of movies about crazy guys who murder women. While I like graphic horror, the violence has to further the plot and the plot has to either make me think, or grandly entertain me. In cinema, the torturing of helpless people presented as a spectacle to make up for a poor story line is sick and boring. That said, three recent and overlooked independent movies about crazy guys murdering women have caught my attention as standout works! These films are similar in that in each of them, the killer is the protagonist, and the character-study plots attempt to show us what’s going on inside his head and why.

In these three stories the slayers are vulnerable and delusional in ways that almost make us excuse their actions. Each misguidedly pursues, and us rejected by, an idealized love interest. Each strives to lead a normal life, but keeps tripping over his own mental illness. In all three films, the murderer is schizophrenic who rationalizes his thoughts and actions to, or is advised by, an imaginary confidant. Each entry in this demented trio of serial killer flicks effectively pulls off this fictitious friend gimmick, which not only adds and extra dimension to their respective stories, but oddly—and unsettlingly—compels a twisted sort of empathy for the homicidal central characters.

Still from Enter the Dangerous Mind (2013)In director Victor Teran’s Enter the Dangerous Mind (2013), featuring Scott Bakula and Jason Priestley, Jim (Jake Hoffman), is an aspiring electronic music composer who goes completely insane. It’s a serious film, and Jim has serious issues with the opposite sex. His low self-esteem and the near perpetual berating he receives over his ineptitude with girls compounds his emotional baggage. The admonishment and abuse comes from Jim’s caustic imaginary roommate. Rejection by his love interest leads to paranoia, exacerbated by the ever escalating timbre of a strange and terrible chorus of discordant sounds in Mark’s head; disembodied voices mixed with the maddening phonic trappings of our total-immersion electronic media culture.

7th Day (2012) is a gritty, low-budget but well-produced effort authored by Mark Leake, the writer/director of the -esque cannibal exploitation film parodies Isle (2008) and Pleasures of the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE VOICES (2014) [PLUS “7TH DAY” AND “ENTER THE DANGEROUS MIND”]

LIST CANDIDATE: YELLOWBRICKROAD (2010)

DIRECTED BY:  Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton

FEATURING:  Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler, Lee Wilkof, Clark Freeman, Michael Laurino, Alex Draper, Tara Giordano, Sam Elmore

PLOT:  A small entourage of pseudo-anthropologists encounters disorientation, bedlam and horror on the trail of a historic mass disappearance.
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WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Yellowbrickroad’s set-up is not so odd—a bunch of 20-somethings lost in the woods. We’ve seen this a thousand times, although some very strange things occur in the woods in Yellowbrickroad. What pushes it over the precipice of weird is the ending, and what it means. The gruesome, ethereal ending changes the entire story into a bizarre horror odyssey, and this, combined with surreal settings and occasional use of blue monochrome cinematography, deliver a viewing experience that morphs from garden variety unusual to full-blown weird.

COMMENTS:  A fortnight ago I discussed the independent puzzler, Resolution (2012).  It’s plodding and pensive, but delivers on its clever high concept with a disturbing climax. The glibly-titled Yellowbrickroad follows a like formula and offers a similar experience. It’s enigmatic, and saves all of its open-ended answers for its lurid finale. While Yellowbrickroad has fewer puzzler paradoxes than Resolution, first time feature film writer/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton do a pretty good job considering their half mil micro-budget, incorporating intriguing and colorful elements of mystery, and a couple of mesmerizing characters, into the script.

In Yellowbrickroad, several young academics set out to re-chart a rural New England zone inexplicably reopened and declassified after an unsolved mass exodus emptied a nearby town 70 years ago. And, you guessed, it, everyone disappeared into them thar hills. Except for their intestines, that is.

OK, not just their intestines. Other parts were found too, but not nearly enough to account for everyone. Some of the emigrants, intestines and all, just…well they just vanished. We get the general idea.

Or do we?

Because, except for several token nods to the 1939 classic The Wizard Of Oz, Yellowbrickroad’s enigma is so perplexing that we mostly forget to question several pretty far-fetched plot holes. Such as why people in the town where everyone disappeared a generation ago are so tight-lipped. If everyone left, presumably today’s residents aren’t the descendents, and so have no stake in the matter.

But that’s OK, because something so unspeakable pervades the locale that just maybe it has a hold on everyone who is afraid to talk about it. One thing’s for sure: when a group of 20-somethings venture into the spooky, spooky hills in search of a macabre mystery, we can predict that…well, let’s just say, “we knew there’d be death!” A lot of it.

To its credit however, Yellowbrickroad avoids typical deep woods “boo!” and splatter clichés, instead building on the atmosphere inherent in being disoriented in a labyrinthine forest. As the team’s equipment fails, so do their minds, and the fact-seeking sleuths succumb to bedlam and violence. Time and space mean something different here, and all the while, period music from the era of the disappearance inexplicably wafts across the landscape. The trekkers can’t determine it’s source—or the way back. The path, nicknamed the “Yellow Brick Road” since its original followers departed from a local theater playing The Wizard Of Oz, held then, as today, some kind of symbolic “way out.”

Or not.

For the woods have swallowed our crew of intrepid explorers, their navigational aids won’t work, and there seems to be no way off the trail. Reminiscent of an old fable about suicide, in which those who killed themselves were presumed to be dissatisfied with reality, and wound up sentenced to increasingly topsy-turvy, contrary worlds each time they attempted escape, the Yellow Brick Road in Yellowbrickroad obviously leads to some much weirder reality, with the grim caveat of “be careful what you wish for.”

Like the aforementioned Resolution, or the engrossing but talky, independent sci-fi thriller Primer (2004), Yellowbrickroad is a niche film. It takes its dialogue-saturated time delivering us to the sensational payoff. All three vehicles would be more effective as half-hour shorts.

Yellowbrickroad offers some gruesome, blackly comedic skullduggery along the way, however, and there’s one forceful, enigmatic early hint of what is to come: an unsettling sound effect that everyone will instantly recognize, but absolutely not be able to place. Until the ending, that is, which slaps you with a sickening epitome of recognition. Understanding the sound only adds to the shock value and will have you repeating the tagline from the 1972  The Last House On The Left: “it’s only a movie.”

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…by about the one-hour mark, nothing has really happened, and instead of continuing to slow simmer the tension, they turn the carnage up to 11 and we arrive at something resembling a mid-’90s Marilyn Manson music video. Just bizarre.”–Michael C. Walsh, The Boston Phoenix (contemporaneous)

Yellowbrickroad movie trailer

LIST CANDIDATE: RESOLUTION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

FEATURING: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Bill Oberst Jr., Kurt David Anderson, Emily Montague

PLOT: A man ties up his methamphetamine-addicted friend in a cabin in hopes he will kick his drug habit, but strange things start to happen.

Still from Resolution (2012)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In this tense micro-budget thriller, a young man tries to bring his friend back to reality, only to find that “reality” is not just open to interpretation, but malleable and ever-changing. In fact, the pair’s reality might not even be their own. A genre bender and a puzzler all in one film, this indie thriller combines horror, mystery, drama, and psychological suspense elements with a novel premise and twist and turns to deliver a uniquely weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS: In spite of some worn clichés—mysterious found footage, missing researchers, and a mystic medicine cabin obligatorily set on an Indian reservation—with Resolution, independent writer/director Justin Benson brings us a breath of fresh air. The film is technically adept on its small budget, and presents a real genre-bender of a plot. Resolution builds slowly as a crime drama, becomes psychological suspense, then morphs into a puzzler riddled with paradoxes. It releases in a brief climax of occult horror.

In the story, yuppie Michael (Peter Cilella) travels to a remote squatters’ shack, where his addict friend Chris (Vinny Curran), bristling with firearms and contraband, has holed up, resolved to kill himself with drugs. Michael restrains Chris, and forces him to withdraw “cold-turkey” over the course of a week.

A progression of weirdos make the scene. Chris’s low-life cohorts (Kurt David Anderson and Kyler Meacham) drop in, demanding drugs. A tightly-wired Native American property owner (Zahn McClarnon) and his menacing gang show up to evict the occupants. A scheming real estate developer (Josh Higgins) creeps in, mistaking Michael and Chris for the deed-holders, and a doomsday religious cult is engaging in shenanigans a little too nearby for comfort.

Michael strives to maintain control over the situation to buy enough time to get Chris straightened out, and back to civilization and rehab. Despite the threat posed by oddball interlopers, the real tension is yet to come.

Someone…or some THING is watching and recording everything Michael and Chris do. But how? The surveillance indicates a presence that looms closer and closer, yet Michael can’t detect the observer.

Looking for clues, Micheal discovers strange footage shot by a missing anthropology team, then locates a laconic neighbor, Bryon (Bill Oberst Jr.), with an uncomfortably unorthodox existential philosophy. From here the story plunges into perplexing paradoxes. Chris’s sleazy drug buddies and the landowner converge for a showdown. Mind-bending events knock Mike and Chris away from objective reality and any sense of control over their destinies.

Resolution is talky, but intriguing. The long-winded plot is better suited for an hour short. Aside from establishing an initial setting and circumstances, the first half of the film doesn’t bear vital relation to the engaging concepts of the second. It’s still pretty good. Unsettling developments keep us watching. Plot twists reveal a honeycomb of passages down which to venture. Rather than choose one of them and proceed, the filmmakers offer a twisted experience based on the fact that these alternate routes exist.

Part of the fun of Resolution is thinking about the various possibilities and what they mean. In our minds, we pursue them, trying to predict the outcome, but just when we think we know what’s going to happen, Resolution throws us a new twist. Throughout it all ripples a nerve-jarring undercurrent of menace, indeterminate and incipient. Mike and Chris’s safe return to the outside world is increasingly unfeasible.

Subtle cinematic artistry reinforces the exposition. In the scene in which Michael is conversing with Byron, Byron discusses his views about narrative and story. As he explains his views, he holds a mirror. At first, the mirror is angled so that Micheal’s reflection blends with Byron’s face. The effect is to project Byron and Micheal as melded together, depicting a dual entity. But Michael cannot see it. Only we can see it.

Byron angles the mirror so that we see another mirror on the wall behind Michael, producing the illusion of endless repetition. It illustrates the concept of how a painter records a scene. There is the scene, and a painter painting it. But there is a larger scene. For us to see the painter painting the scene, there must be another painter, painting the painter painting the scene… and so on to infinity. This is a pivotal moment in the film. Resolution carries distinct, though not fully developed sub-themes about the evolution and structure of folklore, myth and story, and these are tied into paradoxes.

Resolution was filmed in a half-completed lodge under construction, illuminated by hook lamps, and without background music. Intimate camerawork increases a sense of realism, almost like seeing a documentary. The technique is effective because Resolution turns out to be all about deconstruction and the plastic nature of reality. By the time we realize this, we’ve accepted the actuality of what’s transpired, only to have the drop sheet yanked out from under our feet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strangely tense and humorous meta-narrative about two friends experiencing weird goings-on at a remote cabin.”–Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)


Resolution trailer

CAPSULE: ALYCE KILLS (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Jay Lee

FEATURING: Jade Dornfeld, Tamara Feldman, , Eddie Rouse, Larry Cedar

PLOT: A young woman unintentionally destroys her best friend while on drugs, then spirals into anti-social behavior, dragging her acquaintances into the dark morass of her twisted psyche.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like a high-speed bullet train to Hell, Alyce is novel and exciting, but it doesn’t take us somewhere we want to go.

COMMENTS: With a cursory acknowledgment of the Lewis Carrol tale, Alyce Kills is as much an entry-level clerical answer to the Fortune 500’s American Psycho (2000) as it is a morbid odyssey of self discov—uh, make that self-destruction. Young, pert Alyce (Jade Dornfeld) toils away in a depressing corporate cubicle for a shrewish boss at a thankless job. After work she trudges home to her cramped apartment to freshen up before some much-needed steam-venting at dingy nightclubs. It’s not much of a life, but Alyce has her friend Danielle (Rena Owen), an alpha-female whose guidance Alyce relies upon.

When the women take the Generation-X drug “ecstasy,” Danielle leads on Alyce. It comes out that Alyce has a crush on Danielle, but Danielle rejects her.

Is it an accident then when Alyce “accidentally” pushes her friend off the roof a short while later? It’s not clear whether Alyce is vindictive and a little crazy, or merely reckless and irresponsible. Danielle stands on the ledge, tempting fate, and Alyce mock-pushes her. Alyce is playing a game and behaves as if she doesn’t intend the result—Danielle’s dive to the pavement. But Alyce definitely intends to make contact, and under the circumstances it’s no surprise when Danielle plunges to her doom.

Despite the fact that the drug led to tragedy,  Alyce decides she likes ecstasy and trades sex for X from a repulsive dealer. Under the influence of the psychedelic, Alyce locks herself in her apartment for marathon-length trips during which she perpetually masturbates to violent videos. Conniving to obfuscate her complicity in Danielle’s misfortune leads Alyce to take increasing risks, until she pulls out all the stops. Traipsing across an urban landscape of bizarre characters, settings and situations, Alyce taunts the family of her victim, and eventually conspires murder against those who annoy and inconvenience her.

Having now lost Danielle’s boundary-defining structure, Alyce’s fragile veneer of sanity falls away like an uncoupled caboose from a speeding express. Her locomotive throttle is wide open and there’s no engineer in the cab. Alyce resolves to take charge of her own life, but her brand of self-assertive, feminist “empowerment” is to embark upon a self-indulgent journey of risky behavior. Yet it’s more like a spree, and it degenerates into a maelstrom of self destruction, dragging those closest to her along for a hell-ride on her crazy train.

The theme of women scheming against men has been around at least since ancient Greece. From Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” to the Biblical Eve convincing Adam to bite the proverbial apple, we’ve seen versions of the femme fatale in various literary incarnations through the ages. A few examples are Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra; Daniel Defoe’s opportunistic Moll Flanders; Oliver Goldsmith’s lighthearted, scheming Katie Hardcastle from 1773’s “She Stoops To Conquer”; the conniving Matilda in Matthew Gregory’s 1796 supernatural Gothic novel “The Monk: A Romance”; and the malevolent man-hater Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”

Whereas these feminine plotters employed cunning and sexual manipulation to achieve their aims, their modern counterparts resort to brute force. The concept of the fairer sex outwitting men has evolved into the myth of women’s domination over men, and convoluted orchestrations have given way to the karate kicks and machine guns used by characters such as secret agent Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, or Uma Thurman in the 1998 film version) in “The Avengers,” to Max Guevera (Jessica Alba) in TV’s “Dark Angel,” and La Femme Nikita (Anne Parillaud; Bridget Fonda in the US remake). The latest trend has dark-psyched vixens engaging in just plain psychopathic killing sprees.

Alyce‘s quirky but undeveloped character may be inspired by the leads in May (2002) and Neighbor (2009), two similar stories about loner hellcats who indulge their necrophilic and cannibalistic urges through acts of violence. May () commits her violence via a misguided search for an similarly misfit mate; in Neighbor, “The Girl,” (America Olivo) thrill-kills for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it, making a living by robbing her victims and using their homes like motels. Alyce, however, lacks any sensible or even cognizant motivation at all. Her deeds defy logic, her methods are unsound, and Alyce’s lack of planning is sure to bring her only more trouble. We’re not sure if even she understands her actions. This makes her singularly one-dimensional.

The characterization is a profound disappointment, too. What’s engrossing about Alyce’s sexy character is not what she does, but the wry way she does it with her distinctively iconoclastic demeanor. It’s not the revulsion inherent to her wanton acts of sex and violence that catches our attention, but the manner in which her smug, witty bearing holds out the promise of a satisfying payoff. We keep waiting to tumble into an epiphany of insight into her disturbed psyche, or at least some commentary about human nature or revenge. It never happens, and we’re left feeling like the lone passenger on a runaway train with no destination in sight, and no emergency pull-cord to stop the projector.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…might’ve been an invigoratingly gaudy cult classic if Lee’s imagery was more original. Alas, quite a bit of the first hour resorts to standard horror clichés involving dark alleys, strobe lights, and hallucinations of girl corpses with milky white eyes. But the third act is a small triumph, as the requisite violence is a peculiar blend of the cartoonish and the legitimately grisly.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (contemporaneous)

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Alyce Kills movie trailer

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: LIVIDE (2011)

AKA Livid

DIRECTED BY: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury

FEATURING: Chloé Coulloud, Félix Moati, Jérémy Kapone, Catherine Jacob, Béatrice Dalle, Chloé Marcq, Marie-Claude Pietragalla

PLOT: When a student nurse and her companions break into an enigmatic patient’s mouldering mansion, they spiral into a horrifying mystery while being stalked by reanimated corpses, a marionette vampire, and a brain-sucking sorceress.

Still from Livide (2011)


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Livide undergoes a continual genre metamorphoses from teen slasher, to haunted house film, to morbid steampunk thriller, to otherworldy fantasy. If that’s not enough, the underlying concept, while not purely original (though the story fresh) is completely off-the-wall.

COMMENTS: When Lucy (Coulloud) takes a job as a nurse’s assistant, her mentor takes her to a sinister, ancient estate where an elderly comatose patient named Mademoiselle Jessel (Pietragalla) has allegedly hidden a fortune in treasure somewhere inside the gloomy edifice’s crumbling walls. Lucy returns with accomplices to search for it. The trio unwittingly awakens an ancient matriarch who turns out to be a sorceress—and a brain-sucking vampiress.

Mademoiselle Jessel’s very habitation is in collusion with her. The manor is nearly a living entity and becomes a central, personified lead in the film. Baroque and timeworn, intricate, creaking and groaning, and full of decorative complexity, the edifice resonates from a terrible secret enclosed within.

The house is monstrous and overwhelming, with winding corridors, door-less rooms, portal mirrors, and darkened, cluttered spaces filled with the aberrant memorabilia and paraphernalia of Mademoiselle Jessel’s moribund life. The mansion has its own plan, in malignant collaboration with an undead menagerie of taixdermied creatures.

There are menacing shadows, disturbing movements, and a feeling that one is not alone within these walls. In fact, Lucy and her compatriots are not. The residence’s creaking floors, locked doors and disintegrating walls alternately conceal and release unmentionable abominations upon the hapless intruders.

Trapped in the house with all exits inexplicably locked behind them, exploring eerie room after eerie room, Lucy and her cagey cohorts are drawn into an alternate reality behind a magic mirror. As they frantically scramble for a means of escape, the three friends are pursued by animal and human corpses reanimated as ghoulish marionettes. Meanwhile Lucy finds herself entwined in a vintage riddle which she must solve in order to keep her soul.

Livide is a visually stunning horror film, utterly fresh, and free of all clichés, cheap tricks and tired gimmicks. From the mummy-like, comatose Mademoiselle Jessel, her finger nails grown long as talons and her face obfuscated by a grotesque oxygen mask, to the dreary, decaying mansion in which she is entombed alive, Livide is a morbid cavalcade of ghastly settings, objects and characters.

Intricate sets, elaborate, horrifying makeup effects, along with cryptic objects and props accentuate an original and bizarre genre-bending story. Livide begins as a mystery, evolves into horror and concludes as grisly fantasy. The film’s claustrophobic optical signature enhances its uncanny and eventually surreal feel.

Livide is the ultimate haunted house film, but it is also a diabolical odyssey. Dark, striking, slick, inscrutable and arty, but conventionally filmed and superbly produced, Livide proffers moments of sheer terror accented with otherworldly wonder. A visual extravaganza of the dreadful visions and horrible ideas lurking in the hearts of all proud horror aficionados, Livide unnaturally speaks to something locked deep down inside of us. Livide is an absolutely bitchin’, smashing, slam-bang groovy movie all the way.

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…while the duo has reduced the ketchup factor by at least 50% [from their debut Inside] in this rather surreal mélange of ballet, taxidermy and vampirism, they’ve also cut down on the frights to the point that their doomed Gallic chateau seems about as scary as Disney’s Haunted Mansion.”–Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Repoter

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ACID HOUSE (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Paul McGuigan

FEATURING: Stephen McCole, Maurice Roëves, Garry Sweeney, Jenny McCrindle, Iain Andrew, Irvine Welsh, Kevin McKidd, Gary McCormick, Michelle Gomez, , Jemma Redgrave

PLOT: A grotesque, genre-bending trio of tawdry, disturbing stories about squalor, decay, excess, perversion, stupidity, and altered states.THE ACID HOUSE (3)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTNot only is The Acid House unconventionally filmed, using an insect point-of-view and other unusual camera angles along with non-linear plots, etc., but the stories themselves are strange, surreal, and unsettling.

COMMENTS: The Acid House is funny, grim, unsettling, revolting, and… well, a lot of fun if you like that sort of thing! Another in a series of surreal, underground British Isles films, The Acid House immediately reminded me of Pat McCabe and ‘s bizarre Irish effort, The Butcher Boy (1987), and the somewhat less eerie, but equally strange, Disco Pigs (2001).

Like The Butcher Boy, The Acid House explores the seamy side of working class culture: in this case, Scottish rather than Irish. It follows demented characters who pursue debased agendas under circumstances which are at once supernatural and decidedly sleazy. Writer Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”) dramatizes three plots from his raunchy book of short stories, “The Acid House.” Given Welsh’s imagination and penchant for depraved characters, decadent circumstances, and just plain rotten motives and outcomes, a creepy movie with totally grotesque content is the inevitable result.

In the first story, “The Granton Star Cause,” Boab (McCole) is a loser who puts as little effort into making love to his girlfriend as he does into his rugby performance. Expelled from the team, dumped by said girlfriend, and kicked out of the house by his parents, Boab seeks solace in the bottom of a pint glass at the local pub. There he meets God, in human form, who informs Boab that he created Man in his own image. God then informs Boab that he (God) is lazy and pathetic, and that since Boab shares these traits, he hates Boab for reminding him of his own worst characteristics.

To express his hatred for Boab, as well as his own self-loathing, God dooms Boab by turning him into a common housefly. Now an airborne insect, Boab puts a literal twist to the expression, “a fly on the wall.” Spying on his family and friends’ sleazy private lives, Boab discovers the depth of their secret perversions, before exacting revenge upon several tormentors.

The second story in The Acid House isn’t supernatural, but it’s just as disturbing. In “The Soft Touch,” the village doofus, Johnny (McKidd), marries the town whore, Catriona (Gomez), with predictable results. Yet Johnny accepts responsibility and attempts to be good father and husband, while his new bride continues doing what she does best. A bad situation worsens when Catriona involves herself with the couple’s insane upstairs neighbor Larry (McCormick), who begins systematically to dismantle Johnny’s life. Too soft to take decisive action, Johnny becomes a helpless victim until the nutty neighbor turns the tables on Catriona.

In the third segment, also titles “The Acid House,” Coco (Bremner), a mindless hooligan, and Jenny (Redgrave), a middle class pregnant woman, are simultaneously struck by lightning. Coco, who is on an LSD trip at the time, switches bodies with the newborn infant. Visiting Coco’s adult body in the hospital later, his friends chalk up his new level of infantilism to having finally fried his brain with too many drugs. Meanwhile, Coco, as a grotesque infant, delights in breastfeeding and not so subtly manipulating his new “mother” into indulging his atavistic desires.

The Acid House is outrageous, over the top, and offensive. It will never be accused of being too clever or subtle. In fact, from a literary standpoint, Welsh’s treatment of his subject matter is akin to performing a CPR heart massage with a sledge hammer… then vomiting in the patient’s mouth while administering artificial respiration. Despite the supernatural premise of two of the three stories, the horror in The Acid House is not the traditional “ghosts and goblins” type. Rather, it stems from a deep dread of entrapment, from awful bodily metamorphosis, and from an exploration of the abysmal depths of the debased human condition.

The Acid House is a must-view for all fans of campy, disgusting occult movies.

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“McGuigan has the tendency to overindulge in some banal psychedelic editing, but, for the most part, he’s picked the right style to get as close as possible to the emotional intensity Welsh’s ferocious writing promises. It’s Welsh who lets him down, whose dips into deranged flights of surreal fancy fly smack into a brick wall of triviality.”–David Luty, Film Journal International

LIST CANDIDATE: AEGRI SOMNIA (2008)

DIRECTED BY James Rewucki

FEATURING:  Tyhr Trubiak, Mel Marginet, Warren Louis Wiltshire, Nadine Pinette, Daryl Dorge, Johnny Marlow

PLOT: A man is hounded by his peculiar friends and haunted by disturbing visions.

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WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Aegri Somnia is surreal, somewhere between Carnival Of Souls and Eraserhead (which it stylistically quotes). Combined with it’s strange story, exaggerated camera angles, and oddball characters, Aegri Somnia delivers a 100 percent weird viewing experience for even the most jaded bizarre movie enthusiast.

COMMENTS: Light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, Aegri Somnia (which literally means “a sick man’s dreams” in Latin), is an offbeat, visually stunning, independent effort by Winnipeg director James Rewucki. Effective and foreboding, it is almost visually overpowering in the way it pours across the screen like the gush of a blood bucket accidentally kicked onto a canvas. Rewuckie describes the film as an existential arthouse horror movie. Fans of German Expressionist filmmaking will draw comparisons to Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari enthusiasts will immediately be reminded of Eraserhead.

In the story, Edgar (Trubiak) is a simple man, cowed by his surroundings, scared of his own shadow, seemingly terrified by … life itself! Edgar is hostage to a morbid, crippling anxiety. His outlook is that the very world is a giant machine that seeks to grind him up in its gears and mash him beneath its wheels, to consume and obliterate him.

Edgar just wants to be left alone, to go to work and come home to seek the refuge of a peaceful evening in the security of his domestic surroundings. But it’s not to be.

Edgar’s coworkers, who seem normal on the surface, reveal themselves to be creeps, quiet lunatics who either marginalize or manipulate and victimize him in the course of their bizarre exploits. Edgar’s wife is a hostile nag, his boss is verbally abusive, and everyone around him draws him into unpleasant, precarious situations. When Edgar’s shrewish wife prepares a nice supper for him, unfairly berates him, and then kills herself in the bathtub, Edgar is plunged into a waking nightmare of heightened anxiety, loneliness and frightening “what-if”s?”

Edgar falls captive to malignant visions. In the shadows, unsettling shapes are lurking, and from them, dreadful whispers emanate. Edgar’s acquaintances speak in cryptic codes and symbolic double entendres, alluding to .. what? Something awful. At night, monsters visit Edgar in sickening nightmares. Why?

What is happening to him? He has somehow managed to crack open a portal between this world and some twisted, alternate dimension. It’s a dreadful door that should have remained shut. Can Edgar find a way to close it? Or will this new, loathsome reality continue to envelop him until it swallows him up?

Aegri Somnia is an optically engrossing bit of modern art, bearing obvious influences from other films. Plot-wise, it’s an odyssey in a similar vein to Carnival Of Souls (1962), but there’s more dialogue and more twists and turns. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) it’s a surrealistic story about a man struggling to keep his sanity. A final plot twist is right out of Angel Heart (1987).

Aegri Somnia is captured in black and white with periodic dramatic accents of crimson. Color sequences chronicle Edgar’s hallucinatory nightmares. The movie is filmed in a gritty, plodding, semi-documentary style, as if the camera is an appalled, mute witness. The resulting effect is not only strikingly reminiscent of Eraserhead (1977), but Edgar’s entrapment among hellish creatures of abomination also reminds us of In The Mouth Of Madness (1994). The digital special effect of rapid head-shaking is prominent throughout the film. We first saw this effect in Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and since in fare such as the remake of House On Haunted Hill (1999). Many movies openly sport such borrowed elements en masse, and too often they amount to little more than pasted together fragments of better films. Significantly, this isn’t the case with Aegri Somnia! Director James Rewucki concedes his cinematic influences. And it’s true that Aegri Somnia says nothing profound. It’s a visual exposition. Yet Rewucki imaginatively employs well-worn conventions and techniques to produce a memorable horror movie which feels fresh despite it’s derivative roots. And it’s so visually dramatic!

Aegri Somnia is unusual, disturbing, grotesque, and genuinely arty. Unsettling characters, eerie settings, and oddball events create a gruesome funhouse. But we don’t dare step out of the carriage until the end. We want to see where the ride takes us. Imaginative frames and images persist in the mind’s eye like negative aftervision, long after the tab of the final film strand disengages and flap-flap-flaps against the empty reel.

Aegri Somnia (2008)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite the fact that Rewucki may have tip-toed down the slightly contorted path of a predictable plot, he managed to do so with such stealth as not to disturb the wondrous weirdness that bleeds through this monochromatic visual masterpiece of virulence.”–Lacey Paige, Cinesploitation (DVD)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: MINDFLESH (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Pratten

FEATURING: Peter Bramhill, Carole Derrien, Christopher Fairbank, Roy Borrett, Steven Burrell, Isabella Jade Fane, Lucy Liemann, Clare Routh

PLOT: A troubled man with a dark secret unwittingly summons an alien nymphomaniac from another dimension; she just may represent a race of gods who are none too happy about her latest tryst.

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WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Mindflesh features a plethora of the foreign and the grotesque. From its lurid, bizarre story about sex with aliens to its colorful visual effects, Mindflesh is sure to please fans of the weird.

COMMENTS: Wow! Mindflesh threw me for a loop and really knocked me back in my seat! Discovering a prize like this in a media slurry of mainstream mediocrity is like running across the fabled Star of India in a trash heap.

Slick and fresh, Mindflesh is a bizarre horror yarn about sexual obsession, body disassociation, and morbid metamorphoses. Independent writer/director Robert Patten outdoes himself, making an extreme departure from his first feature length effort, London Voodoo. Mindflesh is a surreal shocker. It’s sexy, grotesque, and provocative. It’s a crazy, jarring ride through alternative consciousness, through the chilling, the macabre, the uncanny, and the wantonly perverse. Patten has accomplished the nearly impossible task of visually translating William Scheinman’s quirky, metaphysical novel “White Light” to the screen in a sensible manner, replete with all of its dreamlike nuances, foreboding atmosphere, and otherworldly Ick! factor.

What transpires in Mindflesh isn’t presented via corny, over-simplified exposition, yet we achieve an intuitive grasp of the phenomena that unfolds. The result is a movie that challenges us with its imaginative concepts, yet is not hard to understand.

Chris (Peter Bramhill) lives after dark: quiet, solitary, driving a mini-cab through the swirling night fog along the damp asphalt traverses of nighttime London. Dimmed neon signs, empty boulevards, abandoned parking lots; the lonely, sleeping city is his domain. The distracted soundtrack to his nocturnal patrols issues from his cab: a mottled, perpetual backdrop of scratchy dispatch messages, police reports, weather bulletins, and static. It’s a world alien to that which most of us are accustomed.

Chris finds out just how alien it can be.

He may have some special sensitivity. Chris is haunted by murky half-memories of something awful from years ago. Increasingly, he suffers from terrifying dreams and hallucinations. He learns from a book, that trauma warps our plane of existence, creating holes in the fabric of space time through which various phenomena cross between parallel worlds.

Suppressed angst, wistfulness, and loneliness radiate from Chris like an aura. By chance, it catches the notice of an enigmatic stranger with a similar perceptive gift.

During his travels through the urban twilight, in shadows, out of the corner of his eye, in his rear-view mirrors—is it a trick of the light?—Chris gets mysterious glimpses of an apparition, a woman (Carole Derrien), solitary, resolute, watching him.

Her appearance is accompanied by electromagnetic disturbances. His automobile compass spins wildly. Radio transmissions warp and undulate, becoming unintelligible. When Chris approaches the mystery woman, she vanishes into a smoke trail, shimmering out of sight in a spiral of mist.

Chris desires her absolutely. An inter-planar transcendence takes place. The woman achieves a physical manifestation, acquiring form out of thin air. Has Chris willed her into this world, or has she willed herself here, entwining with our plane of existence in order to entwine with Chris?

She flickers in and out of earthly reality, until, in an example of Pygmalionism gone utterly awry, she materializes from the skeleton up. Organs fill in the gaps, skin follows. Slick with lymph and blood, basking in the presence of Chris’s humanity, she finalizes like a caterpillar transforming in the chrysalis.

She is a quantum Goddess: sex incarnate, saturated, oozing, seething with desire. She and Chris engage in a ghastly, slimy, ethereal coupling, an obscene union of heaving, illicit, inter-species sex. In her amorous frenzy, the Goddess trashes Chris’s apartment, seducing him tirelessly, repeatedly, transforming him into a quivering lump of catatonia. She pulls him into her alien universe and he undergoes a bodily transformation into her peculiar native anatomy.

Problematically, some very frightful aliens make the scene. They have heavy grievances about Goddess leaving her plane for the earthly realm. They’re willing to do some very nasty things to get her back!

Chris is burdened with the job of returning her, and sheer hell awaits him if he falters. To achieve his salvation, Chris must discover how the Goddess is linked to a sinister episode in his deliberately obfuscated past.

But how?

Mindflesh is colorful and wonderfully twisted. Arban Ornelas’s score reinforces its vivid imagery and seamlessly blends the film’s segues. Patten’s striking cinematic technique is captivating and compelling. His transitions between scenes, the way he melds flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinatory experiences artfully conveys their meaning in a manner that’s concise and logically accessible to the audience.

Mindflesh is almost a perfect horror film. It just misses the bullseye. Chris’s Achilles heel is right out of a famous Greek tragedy. The effect is melodramatic. More surprisingly, in the otherwise sound screenplay, there are a couple of easily avoidable logical flaws which occur later in the story. We try to overlook these incongruities because they pale in comparison to the movie’s sensationally striking visual and imaginative elements. For a horror movie, Mindflesh is in the top tier, sporting visual effects and horror styling reminiscent of Altered States, Videodrome, Hellraiser, Possession (1981), Species, and Splice.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie is one of those rare breeds: a unique creation.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

CAPSULE: SECONDS (1966)

DIRECTED BY: John Frankenheimer

FEATURING: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Will Geer, Jeff Corey, Murray Hamilton, Frank Campanella, Salome Jens

PLOT:  A middle-aged businessman in midlife crisis gets a second chance at life—but it comes at a steep price, and there’s a morbid catch.

SECONDS-2


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Seconds offers us a unique, unusual plot, one that will really stick in your memory. You’ll carry the story and its lesson for the rest of your life because it directly treats concepts that nearly everybody can, or knows they eventually will relate to:  growing old, midlife crisis, looking back and wondering if we made the right choices, and ruefully contemplating the what-might-have-beens. What can we be doing now to make sure we don’t have regrets? Despite the dramatic, hard-hitting effect the writers and director bring to these concepts, however, Seconds is a straightforward, conventional film.  The story is offbeat as hell, but the movie isn’t weird.

COMMENTS:  Dramatic and disturbing, Seconds is a dark, brooding predecessor to middle-class America mid-life crisis films such as the blackly-comic Middle Age Crazy (1980) or the light-hearted and less substantial This Is 40 (2012). Yet, while those films allow us to laugh off the grim prospects of getting older, Seconds grinds on us and strikes a nerve.

Wealthy banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) has it all. He went to the right Ivy League school, joined all the right fraternal organizations, and married the right woman. Yet, at middle-age, something’s missing.

In Sinclair Lewis’s classic novel “Babbitt,” the book’s namesake awakens each morning from a blissful dream of being a carefree youth cozying up to an enigmatic and beautiful girl to greet the dread of reality: a frumpy wife, his own greying countenance, and the unsatisfying banality of another tedious workday. Like Babbitt, Arthur Hamilton feels frustrated and empty. Maybe it’s because Arthur looks like an aging John Randolph. Or could it be because at middle age, Arthur isn’t so sure that the life he toiled away for is the one he really wants?

It’s hard to imagine that it is. Arthur is clearly bored and bothered. Even more telling, Arthur and his wife don’t sleep together anymore. The Hayes code hold-over separate beds don’t help the romance.

And Hamilton is beyond staunch; he’s gosh-darned uptight. Racked with tension, beaded with sweat, coiled up, we want to hand him a Hawaiian shirt, a Mai-Tai, and tell him to loosen up.

We’re not alone.  Someone from Arthur’s past also has him sized up as a walking time-bomb of seething non-fulfillment.

A mysterious phone call from a dead school chum (Murray Hamilton) breaks the routine. After the phone call Hamilton receives a mysterious address, at which he arrives after following a chain of clues. Arthur Hamilton’s life is about to change.

In return for his life insurance payout and a hefty chunk of his sizable estate, Hamilton joins a secret society—one which, after months of super-nutrition, exercise, hair restoration, testosterone therapy, and state of the art plastic surgery, transforms him into—wait for it … wait for it …  young, virile, ROCK HUDSON!

And that’s not all. Under hypnosis, Arthur learns that what he really wanted to do in life was to be an artist. The organization he’s joined has that Continue reading CAPSULE: SECONDS (1966)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE THEATRE BIZARRE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, , ,

FEATURING: , André Hennicke, Peg Poett, Virginia Newcomb, Enola Penny, Amanda Marquardt, Jeremy Gladen, Liberty Larson, Christopher Sachs, Nicole Fabbri

PLOT: In a dilapidated old theater, a macabre human puppet hosts six Grand Guignol-style tales of terror.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Theater Bizarre is similar to other portmanteau horror anthologies, but speeds past them into the realm of the weird with colorful eccentric characters and bizarre story situations.

Still from The Theater Bizarre (2011)

COMMENTS: First-rate makeup, eerie sets and props, and racy, gory stories with unpredictable endings make The Theatre Bizarre a real standout in the genre of horror anthologies. When an emboldened patron of the dramatic arts (Virginia Newcomb) spots an open door to a decrepit told theater down a questionable back street, her curiosity gets the better of her. She enters, takes a seat, and is treated to a series of six sinister stories of sexual obsession and madness, hosted by an uncanny animated human puppet (Udo Kier). Attempting to cultivate his patron’s fear, the puppet presents each demented segment like a circus ringmaster exhibiting a freak show of abominations, with each tale more horribly harrowing and outrageous than the last.

When they meet “The Mother of Toads,” an unwary student of anthropology and his fiancee touring the French countryside are lured into the lair of changeling witch with an offer to peruse rare books. Suffering from an unusual condition, she has an ulterior motive and a strange design in store for both of them. The inquisitive pair are in for the cultural shock of a lifetime.

The psychological tension of unrequited love goes through the roof in “I Love You,” and reality bends and warps when a smothering but inadequate lover plunges beyond the bounds of reason when confronted by the prospect of a breakup.

In “Wet Dreams,” George Romero’s zombie movie makeup artist Tom Savini (who also directs) plays a Freudian psychologist and marriage counselor who turns the tables on a philandering client when he helps a couple step to the other side of the mirror to realize their darkest fantasies.

“The Accident” relates the story of a little girl learning the harsh realities of death after witnessing the aftermath of fatal traffic accident. This serious effort is neither macabre nor racy, and stands out from the other stories in The Theatre Bizarre for its dreamlike filming style and quiet contemplative atmosphere.

“Vision Stains” introduces a psychotic “experience junkie” who kills other women, drains the vitreous fluid from their eyes and injects it into her own to steal their memories. But when she chooses an “exceptional” victim, she takes a ride straight to hell.

Their addiction to elaborate confections cements an uneasy alliance between an oddball beatnik couple in “Sweets”. The glutenous duo’s precarious hold on their shaky union is challenged to the extreme when they join an exclusive club for twisted food perverts whose appetites are esoteric in the extreme.

As a whole, The Theatre Bizarre is a bit uneven. Its segments are diverse and feature unique directorial and writing styles, but each terror tale is memorable, colorful and over-the-top without being campy or silly. The Theatre Bizarre is a portmanteau-style anthology in the tradition of Creepshow or Tales From The Crypt; but with its adult themes and abundant nudity, it’s definitely not a children’s movie. Lurid, salacious, chilling, and bloody as hell, The Theatre Bizarre is the most memorable horror anthology I have seen to date.

All of the directors have done prior work in horror cinema: Richard Stanley (Dust Devil, Hardware), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock, Life is Hot in Cracktown), Tom Savini (the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead), Douglas Buck (Cutting Moments), David Gregory (Plague Town), Karim Hussain (Subconscious Cruelty), and Jeremy Kasten (The Attic Expeditions, Wizard of Gore).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These elements may be shocking and even bizarre. But, like a lot of midnight-movie provocations, they soon turn predictable.”–Mark Jenkins, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)