All posts by Pete Trbovich

CAPSULE: 11:14 (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Greg Marcks

FEATURING: , Hilary Swank, , Ben Foster, Colin Hanks, Henry Thomas

PLOT: A ragtag assortment of small-town misfits shuffle through an eventful night: we follow the small cast through their stories, which all intertwine at the fateful minute of 11:14PM. Someone will die, someone will get arrested, someone will get in a fight, several people will have vehicular damage, and absolutely everybody will panic.

Promotional image from 11:14 (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great, dark comedy thriller that quaffs a heroic shot of with a chaser of ’ comedy. But it’s not even remotely weird. As a Public Service Announcement, PLEASE stop cramming the reader suggestion box with every random movie you can name just because you like it. This is the WEIRD (Adj.: “very strange, bizarre”) movie site.

COMMENTS: The movie opens with bouncy alternative rock and an animation of the credits driving around on a grid of streets. Yes, you guessed correctly, this is an Indie Flick. Eighty-six minutes later, it proves to be one of those gems that are the whole reason you hang out at film festivals. 11:14 is so clever, it’s almost a fault, like the one kid too smart for his own good that can’t resist showing off, so much that the rest of the class strains for a chance to knock him down a notch. The story intertwines five mini-stories in a small town in Anywhere, America, all of which intersect at 11:14 P.M. on what would have been an uneventful night if everybody had stayed home. It also does that Tarantino thing where it shows the events out of order so we can see how all the parts of the evening fit together. Ready? No you’re not.

In this busy town full of busy people, we meet #1: Jack (Henry Thomas) is a drunk driver who sails under an overpass and gets into an accident; #2: Tim (Stark Sands), Mark (Colin Hanks) and Eddie (Ben Foster), teenage waste-aways who are driving around bored when Eddie injures himself during a completely different accident; #3: Frank (Patrick Swayze), walking his dog and finding car keys belonging to his daughter, Cheri (Rachael Leigh Cook), implicating her in a crime he wants to clear her for; #4: Duffy (Shawn Hatosy) who thinks he has gotten Sheri pregnant and needs money for an abortion, so he goes to his friend Buzzy (Hilary Swank), who works at a convenience store, for help; and #5: Cheri, who is in the cemetery having sex with her boyfriend Aaron when yet another freak accident happens. “Middleton: A happy place to live!” Most of all, this is a movie about people under pressure making hasty decisions.

As you can see, this movie is set up to make life hell for movie re-cappers. How does all this come off? Everybody has a Wile E. Coyote scheme that backfires, and furthermore random events by coincidence steer all of their fates no matter how they try to wriggle out of them. Nobody in this movie is particularly stupid, it’s just that they’re C-average ordinary people who find themselves at crisis points. The dialog is funny, the characters are well-cast, the soundtrack rocks, the plot construction is dizzying, and of course the movie has to keep starting over again to show time from different characters’ points of view as all their drama intersects in an untidy heap at the fateful minute. It’s dark, funny, thrilling, and tickling. It demands multiple viewings so you can retrace the plot intersections and try to spot the exact minute writer-director Greg Marcks is stuffing all the rabbits and doves into his hat. The show-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Marcks does a number of things quite well. He establishes a difficult tone — part dramatic, part comic, part absurdist — and he maintains it throughout.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This  movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who described it as “definitely untypical.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK WATERS (1993)

Temnye vody

DIRECTED BY:  Mariano Baino

FEATURING: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist

PLOT: Seeking answers to her own past, woman investigates an ancient holy order that guards a mysterious relic at a convent on an island.

Still from Dark Waters (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because the cute little Gollum guy on the ferryman’s boat squatting there chomping on raw meat is only the 80th or so most unforgettable image from this atmospheric dive into religious horror. That’s religion as in “Cthulhu,” not just “Virgin Mary.” Also, the nuns in this movie deserve to be the standard against which all creepy (not to mention crispy) nuns are compared. So throw the Gollum a bone: “He keeps the other freaks away!”

COMMENTS: We admit it’s cheap to invoke the name of Master David Lynch (may peace be upon the name of the prophet) up front in a review, but it bears mentioning that one of Lynch’s rules of creating atmosphere is “shut up and let the scenery do the talking.” After a brief opening narration cutting to a Spaghetti Western prop-store cattle skull, Dark Waters keeps its mouth shut throughout its eight minute prologue, by which time three people have died, while we hang on mute scenes of the rituals surrounding a demonic-looking holy relic. This silence, of course, forces us to refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky (our prayers with confidence are placed in his hands). Cut to 20 years later, and Elizabeth (Louise Salter) is riding the “bus of fools,” and later a rowboat manned by a Charon stand-in, on her way to an island to confront this religious order and find out why her departed father supported it.  The mysterious order is harsh and unwelcoming, and things get scary fast. Great, now we have to name-drop The Wicker Man too. What we’re saying here is, even if Baino doesn’t prove worthy of being honored alongside the weird director greats, he has certainly walked their path.

Anyway, we’re in for the good old-fashioned Gothic interpretation of Catholic (or is it Orthodox?) faith. You bet your sweet bippy there will be spectral nuns chanting in Latin, self-flagellation with snapping whips, and a slow lingering camera pan over a crucifix every other minute (yes, Ken Russel, we thought of you too). The convent is all candlelit and leaky amid a solid movie-long rainstorm, with every color an earth tone as the constant drip of water threatens to snuff out the candles. When Elizabeth flashes her pack of Marlboros here, it’s like an aberration from another universe. Not that the nuns will mind, as most of them are blind, apparently from exposure to the bad mojo on the island. Mother Superior (Mariya Kapnist), seems to get her counsel from these blind, mummy-like nuns while she herself keeps her vision. She assigns Sarah (Venera Simmons) to see to her guest (stuck here because the boat only runs once a week), even while bluntly telling Elizabeth that it’s none of her damn business what the convent does. But we get plenty of hints anyway, from Elizabeth’s nightmares that reel down catacomb corridors lit with enough candles to smoke out Hades, to Elizabeth turning straight to the Book of Revelation to read about the Apocalypse. Elizabeth and Sarah trespass in cavern and attic alike to explore the mystery, but they have to be careful. Blind or not, the nuns will kill to protect their secrets. Of course we have an idea where this is going, but that doesn’t matter, because while the whole plot can be spoiled in two sentences, how we get there is much more important.

For a movie with such a taciturn script, it is a good thing that Dark Waters makes such excellent use of the visual side of the medium. Every frame is composed to etch itself onto your eyeballs, every note of music designed to stretch your last nerve to the breaking point, every ray of light muted into a dramatic chiaroscuro shadow. Burning crosses wielded by nuns stampeding over hills at night cut to horrific drawings of tentacled monstrosities in tomes of ancient lore. It’s so heavy on atmosphere that you don’t watch this movie so much as you lay back and smoke it. If we could pick any bones with Dark Waters, it’s that the film tends to be a little -ish/Dario Argento-like at times, as many shots are there just to gawp at rather than advance the plot. And let’s face it, the story is derivative, equal parts and Italian giallo thrillers, except the nuns here mostly keep their tops on. Waters even invokes The Haunting of Hill House, since Elizabeth is a stranger visiting this strange place while having deep, but inscrutable, connections to it, and having a woman her age as her sole confidant. But the individual details push this effort far above its roots.

This is Mariano Baino’s sole feature length credit, with nothing else to his name but for a few shorts. With this nearly-undiscovered gem for a freshman effort, will we even begin to apprehend what he could do for an encore? It’s been 24 years since Dark Waters came out, so we may never know what else this visionary is capable of.

Dark Waters was re-released by Severin Films on DVD, and for the first time on Blu-ray (sold separately) in 2017. The elaborate edition comes with directorial commentary and hours of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…may not get everything right, but with Elder gods, inbred fishing villages, and a striking visual aesthetic that emphasizes the dark, barely glimpsed corners where evil might well lurk, it comes pretty darn close to catpuring that old Lovecraftian magic on film… the director’s painterly mise-en-scene often reminded me of one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, and his dreamlike, borderline surreal symbolism.”–The Vicar of VHS, Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dark Waters (1993 film) – The film’s entry at Cthulhu-Wiki

WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?

Here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, our staff is repeatedly faced with a perplexing question: How do you quantify a movie as “weird”? It’s like the old Supreme Court ruling on how to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” OK, but our mission is to sort out the 366 Weirdest movies, on top of that. Now we’re forced to quantify movies, because some will be on the list and some will not. Given any two movies that appear equally weird, how do you rank them?

It’s an unanswerable question, ultimately. But here, submitted for the consideration of anybody who cares, is the closest thing to an objective system the present author can think of when ranking a movie’s weirdness. It’s the system I partially use when throwing in my vote for yay or nay on whether a movie belongs on the list. Since we even have reader polls once in awhile to vote movies onto the list, perhaps it will do some good to share it. It’s not an iron-clad rule, merely a guide.

What a silly exercise! No doubt Robin Williams from Dead Poets’ Society will charge in here after we’re done and tell us all to rip this page out of the textbook. Have at it, Robin, you’re probably right.

The Weird Movie Ranking System

You can rank a movie’s weirdness in four areas. These axes of ranking are:

  • Premise – A wild or original idea. The substance.
  • Presentation – The method, attitude, or approach of storytelling. The style.
  • Detail – The stuff you see in the “indelible image” and “three weird things” section of list entries.
  • Passion – The commitment to an individual and original vision imbued by the movie’s creator(s).

The higher we can rank a movie on each of these axes, the weirder it is. This isn’t anything silly like a one-to-ten scale, just a general mark of “high” or “low.” Most movies can’t make it onto the list with a high ranking in only one aspect. But the more boxes we tick on the list, the higher its chances. Now to examine each axis in more depth:

Premise

Premise appears to be the least important metric in measuring a movie’s weirdness. Premise is closely related to plot, but not identical. Some entries, such as Un Chien Andalou, have no plot to speak of. “A girl falls asleep and dreams about a magical fantasy land” can describe both The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. The premise doesn’t make the movie weird by itself.

Detail from Being John Malkovich posterBut it sure helps. Being John Malkovich is a great example: An office building staff discovers a portal into an actor’s head, and tries to exploit it for profit. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is about a bed that eats people. Elevator Movie is Continue reading WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?

CAPSULE: TOURIST TRAP (1979)

DIRECTED BY: David Schmoeller

FEATURING: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Tanya Roberts

PLOT: A group of teenagers have car trouble in the back country and find themselves stuck at a closed museum exhibiting creepy, realistic mannequins.

Still from Tourist Trap (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it be an excellent cult horror classic, this one ranks in the bottom half when it comes to real weirdness. If 2013’s Evil Dead or 2012’s The Cabin In The Woods don’t make the list, what chance does Tourist Trap have? While it’s a memorable horror film, Freddy Kruger picks weirder things out of his teeth.

COMMENTS: Weird movie fans approaching Tourist Trap will have reason to get their hopes up when they see the director, David Schmoeller. He also directed Crawlspace (1986), which is one of the better examples of a cult horror classic and a decidedly offbeat production. And nothing says “you came to the right movie” like the opening music theme, which is a perfect blend of whimsy and dread. Soon we will encounter the ISO standard horror cliches: carloads of young folks, a flat tire, the creepy old rest stop in the middle of nowhere, and the first sacrificial lamb killed off in a sentient room full of laughing mannequins. Ten minutes in, you’ll swear you’re watching an Evil Dead installment, until you remember this was done two years before Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell first ventured into the Tennessee woods. However, by the halfway mark, after you’ve gotten a better map of this film’s universe, there will be no doubt in your mind that Crawlspace’s director made this. Unique villains are David Schmoeller’s forte.

So a carload of teenagers on some kind of outing stumble upon the “Lost Oasis,” a museum now long closed ever since the new highway went through. Stranded with the typical horror-movie car malady, the broke-down kids soon meet Mr. Slausen (horse opera vet Chuck Connors), who runs a decrepit museum of mannequins. Slausen is chock full of exposition about this creepy place, a locale that practically begs for Scooby-Doo and Shaggy to run around stumbling into the trap doors and secret passageways. As it is, the gang of kids do a knock-out job of being dim-witted horror movie teens, insisting on going skinny dipping in muddy ponds in the middle of nowhere, or splitting off alone from the group to inspect deserted houses at night—even after they’ve been warned—because they’re just so darned curious. To the movie’s credit, once we put all the pieces together and gotten to know our antagonist, we get a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. For a low budget flick with little to work with beyond old theater parts and department store fixtures, it wrings out every ounce of scare value from its limited arsenal.

Tourist Trap suffers from Trope Codifier syndrome, causing it not to age well even though it originated many of the characteristics we now view jadedly. We see it today as a derivative mad slasher flick, but that genre was just being born when this movie came out. The wayward teens might as well have numbers branded on their foreheads to show the order they’ll be picked off. The story is loaded with creepy atmosphere, but very thin on logic. Gosh, those mannequins sure seem life-like, as if their eyes follow you around… now you see where this is going. Tourist Trap is redeemed if you recall that it came out one year before Friday the 13th and just one year after Halloween. Dyed-in-the-wool horror/slasher fans will want to see this movie to check it off the must-see list, but weird fans will find little to hold their attention past the sheer offbeat charm of it all and the occasional hilarious one-liner. Make no mistake, you’ll at least get a shiver from the mannequins the next time you’re browsing in the department store at your local dusty, half-deserted mall, which just goes to show that Tourist Trap has done the job it set out to do.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Even though the pic couldn’t be dumber or more senseless, for some it might have some appeal because of its oddness.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

This movie was made for Kindertrauma:

Tourist Trap

Crawlspace (also by David Schmoeller) review at Tenebrous Kate’s:

Crawlspace [1986]

LIST CANDIDATE: IDAHO TRANSFER (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand

PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.

Still from Idaho Transfer (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.

COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?

With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.

At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.

“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)

Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):

CAPSULE: CALIGULA (1979)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione

FEATURING: , , , Teresa Ann Savoy,

PLOT: Caligula becomes the Emperor of Rome and lots of depravity happens; any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely accidental.

Still from Caligula (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: On paper, Caligula sounds like a sure bet. There are many bad movies that get honored here, and we even have a tag called “.” Caligula could theoretically qualify for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made by that standard. Except that “bad” doesn’t describe Caligula so much as stupid. Nothing more need be said about this movie but “stupid.” Rocks are too smart to watch Caligula.

COMMENTS: There is at least a hefty essay and maybe a book to be written about the story of how Caligula got made, although perhaps it would be more correct to say it got “executed.” The drama involved in the production is a thousand times more entertaining than anything that ended up on film. Pretty much everybody involved locked horns and stormed off the set to sue each other. Various creative forces within the production struggled to make it a historic Shakespearian opera, a cheap exploitation flick, a softcore porn epic, and a hardcore snuff porn transgression; the result was best summed up when one reviewer called it “a boondoggle of landmark proportions.”

Some cultural context is helpful: the 1970s were an era when movies like Deep Throat had brought big-screen porn into a relatively acceptable light, and filmmakers were getting more daring in testing the boundaries of taste. Caligula pisses on the very idea of taste, and if you dare to abuse your intellect by watching it, you will encounter several scenes where it literally does just that. Welcome to the Horny Roman Empire, with Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) romping with Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), which seems to be harmless enough erotica until you learn they’re brother and sister. His uncle Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole), summons him to discuss politics and witness his depraved orgies. Caligula assassinates Tiberius and assumes the throne, breaking all hell loose as he sinks into depravity. Caligula promotes Drusilla as his equal, convicts Marco (Guido Mannari) of treason in a kangaroo court and offs him, and marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren) because he can’t legally marry his sister. Drusilla dies, Caesonia gets pregnant, Caligula wars with the Roman senate and declares himself a god, Caligula shows off his horse, the new senator Chaerea plots to assassinate Caligula and succeeds, and the movie ends, merciful heavens be praised.

In the midst, background, foreground, and everyground of these shenanigans, naked people cavort in every depiction of hedonistic excess possible. It kind of plays out like a film with a bigger budget but fewer ideas and not a trace of a sense of humor. In fact, Malcolm McDowell’s presence in this film invites you to compare it to a signature scene of A Clockwork Orange; it’s exactly the kind of “ultraviolence” film the character Alex would be forced to watch during his brainwashing sessions. There’s rape, torture, bestiality, necrophilia, mutant people with four legs and butts on their bellies, silly over-the-top executions and mutilations, urination, defecation, and basically every perversion you could search for on the Internet. Most of this just flies by with no context or reason to exist. Sometimes the camera just gets bored and focuses on somebody’s crotch, while irrelevant actors screech their dialog in hopes of getting it’s attention. Nobody in this movie even gave a thin damn about historical accuracy. The sets are festooned with anachronisms such as a styrofoam hat shaped like a penis, worn by an extra just casually passing through the set while apparently waiting for a taxi.

When it comes to erotic arthouse films, Caligula fails by every definition. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover does a superior job of being a weird epic with erotic scenes, for just one example. There’s a dozen or so artsploitation films already in line on this site ahead of Caligula, and there’s only so many we need. In terms of history, just take into account that even the writings we have of the real life of Caligula (mostly Suetonius, writing 80 years after the emperor’s death) are suspected of fudging the facts in the interest of political propaganda. In terms of pure kinky titillation, go watch The Story of O or Secretary or Belle De Jour instead. Don’t look for steamy thrills in Caligula, because nobody, not even serial killers apprehended with a freezer full of body parts, is this depraved.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… as with a lot of bad would-be art, this cinematic oddity holds a truly bizarre fascination…”–Michale Dequina, The Movie Report (1999 revival)

LIST CANDIDATE: RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY: A MUSICAL ADVENTURE (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Williams

FEATURING: Claire Williams, Didi Conn (voice), Mark Baker (voice)

PLOT: Raggedy Ann and Andy to pursue a toy pirate into a mystical fantasy world to rescue a French waif.

Still from Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because of its reputation as a weird animated film which traumatized generations of kids, we dare not exclude it from consideration, lest the masses rise up against us. But also, it includes an auto-cannibalistic taffy pit, singing naked twins, a camel who insists on pointing out his deformities, and a practical-joker knight—and we haven’t even entered Loony Land yet.

COMMENTS: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: A bunch of animated, sentient toys in a child’s room greet a new toy which is unable to accept its lot in life. It runs away with another toy from the room while the rest of the toys marshal a plan to go rescue them—with lots of songs along the way. Toy Story? Ding, you are correct! But Raggedy Ann and Andy did it all eighteen years before. The film is in fact based on the book “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knee,” by Johnny and Marcella Gruelle. There were a whole series of these books that came out around the Great Depression and are soaked in that time period’s sensibilities—after all, Ann is raggedy, not shiny and new like a rich kid’s doll would be.

From the letter-by-letter animated credits to the full-blown absurd climax, this movie is a treat in every sense, but it is also some of the most bonkers animation ever set to film. It’s an onslaught of eccentric characters, spontaneous songs every ten minutes, fantasy places as exotic as anything you’d find in Wonderland, and demented dream logic throughout. All of this is animated by a team working on individual segments, chiefly led by legendary animator Richard Williams, with meticulous attention to detail but mismatched styles throughout the film, giving it Heavy Metal levels of inconsistency. Flopsy moppet dolls gambol in boneless dances, shape-shifting blobs boil in a hodge-podge of mismatched eyeballs, and at times the cast is propelled through what appears to be an MC Escher world or a psychedelic rainbow land, except when they’re charging off cliffs against a sky that’s an homage to Vincent van Gogh.

Raggedy Ann and Andy reside with a host of other dolls in the playroom of a little girl, Marcella, who’s getting a new toy for her birthday: Babette, a French doll who snobbishly disdains her surroundings. She’ll be taken down a notch when the pirate Captain, finagling an escape from the solitary confinement of his snow globe, sails away with her lashed to the mast of his ship. Ann and Andy set out to rescue her, encountering the wrinkly-kneed Camel, the sentient self-consuming lake of taffy known as the “Greedy,” a sadistic practical joker Knight, and eventually the appropriately named Loony Land where bedlam is the only law.

If you see this film as a wee tot, it’s just a fun fantasy musical with a tad more psychedelic imagery than the average animated feature. The weirdness sneaks up on you long after. Perhaps the movie’s story comes from more innocent times, but there’s almost too many disturbing implications for it to be unintentional. Ann and Andy are brother and sister but act like lovers, there’s a mean and crazy man who torments lost little dolls in the woods at night while singing that he loves them, there’s an impotent king whose body parts inflate at random and who rages that he can’t expand bigger unless he’s torturing a captive, there’s a female former captive in bondage who now rules a crew of men while cracking a whip, there’s a tickle monster, and you could go on all day. Now ponder the hellish existence of the Greedy, a monster made of candy who craves candy and so eats himself constantly, before discovering Ann’s candy heart and coming after her with a pair of scissors to cut it out – because he wants a “sweetheart.” Now you know why everybody loved this movie as a kid and yet recalls it with shivers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What mostly registers from the movie, though, is its unfettered weirdness; and this is something that will be felt differently by every viewer. For myself, I was delighted by the way the animators chased their ideas down to extreme degrees without holding anything back, seeing how the discipline learned from Disney and Warner could produce some exquisitely warped surrealism.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

CAPSULE: SLC PUNK (1998)

DIRECTED BY: James Merendino

FEATURING: Matthew Lillard, Michael A. Goorjian, Annabeth Gish

PLOT: Young rebels grow up in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA—a location not very conductive to rebellion.

Still from SLC Punk (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One-and-a-half acid trip sequences do not a weird film make, especially when they’re just played for a quick laugh. SLC Punk is in fact a pretty wholesome teenage rumination which happens to be set against the background of the 1980s; in this modern day, it plays like Disney trying to make its own Trainspotting.

COMMENTS: Punk, especially ’80s punk, is a genre defined largely by arguments about its own definition, and SLC Punk spends a lot of time on the debate itself. At the end of the day, we have to give up trying to pin down the genre nobody can agree on and just move on, waving our hands at “that thing over there,” whatever you call it. Punk is Tao; to define it is to grip the air. And we all know the Billie Joe Armstrong quote, thanks.

With that out of the way, you will search far and wide for a comparably mature and realistic snapshot of punk rock culture, the Reaganomics ’80s, or Salt Lake City, for that matter. Stevo (Matthew Lillard) carries us through from start to finish, telling us of his life and coming of age. Along the way, we get some philosophizing about what it means to be a non-conformist, and how to harmonize your nonconformity with the world around you. Stevo’s cast of friends are characters in a punk-culture parable: some come to good ends, some to bad, and some just cruise along.

Not only does Stevo narrate, but he erases the fourth wall and takes us on live guided tours around his life, introducing us to his friends at a party as if we, the audience, were attending. Further segments become mini-documentaries, tackling the rivalry between punk and other cultures, the dichotomy of “posers” within the culture, U.S. vs. U.K. punks, what it’s like to score drugs or even decent alcohol in Utah, and other video-blog topics. We meet Stevo’s chum “Heroin” Bob (Michael A. Goorjian), his dad (Christopher McDonald) who doesn’t quite see eye to eye with his son but manages to have an amicable relationship anyway, his girlfriend Trish (Annabeth Gish), and his drug connection and part-time psycho Mark (Til Schweiger). There’s no real plot to be found here, just a series of interrelated vignettes in the day-to-day lives of these characters.

SLC Punk is a much-cherished cult classic which looks amazing for its six-figure budget. Its soundtrack is one of the greatest punk albums you will ever own; this is the music punks actually listened to in the ‘80s, as opposed to the music we think they listened to. While the movie puts the dyed mohawks and party hi-jinks up front, at its core it’s a thoughtful documentary masquerading as a fictional dramedy, one that wears its heart on its sleeve. It even winds up on a positive note, miraculously pulling through the nihilism to come to some upbeat conclusions, even though not everybody pulls through. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be left with a story that transcends a punk culture exposé and resonates with any youth scene in any state during any decade. All of us, goths, mods, emos, slackers, hippies, yuppies, and hipsters, are all our own brand of punk… and in the end, we are all posers to somebody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurdist coming-of-age comedy… likable for its outlandishness, less so when it shows a self-important streak. For all of Merendino’s jump-cutting affectations and other flashes of attitude, it’s finally as mainstream as its hero turns out to be.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWILIGHT OF THE COCKROACHES (1989)

Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare

DIRECTED BY: Hiroaki Yoshida

FEATURING:  Kaoru Kobayashi, Setsuko Karasuma, Kanako Fujiwara

PLOT: A colony of cockroaches lives in happy comfort in the apartment of a lonely slob, but that all changes the day a girlfriend moves in and takes over cleaning the place and eradicating the pests.

Still from Twilight of the Cockroaches (1989)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As noted elsewhere on this site, the bar for weirdness in Japanese anime is set pretty high, because the genre itself is such a wild frontier. Twilight of the Cockroaches sets itself apart by being half-animated and half-live-action, and by being about the politics of cockroach tribes. If that in itself isn’t compelling enough, any film whose IMDB page’s plot keywords list includes the phrase “talking turd” pretty much demands our consideration.

COMMENTS: The present author is aware of exactly two commercial films in which cockroaches make up the majority of the cast. One of them is Joe’s Apartment, and I’m reveiwing other one now. Of the two, Twilight of the Cockroaches wins easily for “weirdest cockroach movie.” The comparison has to stop there, because the two movies are entirely opposite in tone. A critter’s eye view of a society of anthropomorphic non-humans, Cockroaches has more in common with Watership Down or The Secret of Nimh than an MTV-sponsored slacker comedy. It pounds in a heavy political message, possibly related to Hiroshima or Auschwitz, though the director declared it to be about Japan; fan bases debate it to this day. Fill in your own country and political philosophy here.

But for those of you without too much book-learnin’, this is a movie about cockroaches. Naomi is a cockroach waif—“19 in cockroach years”—who serves as our narrator and has “never experienced terror.” She and the rest of her vermin society reside in the apartment of Saito, a human bachelor whose deadly sins include sloth and gluttony, allowing the cockroaches to live in fat contentment. The roaches worship Saito as a god, giving thanks for his sloppy leftovers as they mistake his neglect for benevolence. Sage, the “great leader” of this society, is a reassuring father to his people, ringing with praise for their benevolent human. Naomi is engaged to the stable suitor Ichiro, but she pines for Hans, a warrior cockroach from another tribe. Hans brings grim stories of other apartments where cockroaches fight for survival against humans determined to annihilate them, which is shocking news to Naomi in her peaceful utopia.

Hans returns to his side of the apartment complex, while Naomi contracts wanderlust, exploring the outside world in her quest for the truth. She sets across the vacant lot next to the apartment to find Hans, braving all kinds of hazards—and meeting a helpful turd—along the way. The elders of Naomi’s tribe lament how entitled and shiftless the modern generation is, as the young ones scoff at the warnings that the good times could abruptly end. That foreshadowing comes to pass when Saito, somehow, gets a girlfriend, who moves in with him and brings with her a holocaust of housecleaning and bug-killing. This forces the roaches to confront the error of their complacency. It will be up to Hans’ militarized comrades to show the way forward for roachkind.

The slow, lethargic pace of this film, scored to soulful, lonely piano solos, makes it a chore to sit through. And yet, just when you’re ready to take the film on the serious terms it so obviously desires, it throws talking poop at you. Scenes like a pie-eating party that turns into a pie-throwing party are slapstick; while when Naomi is trapped in a roach motel with other bugs, themselves dying, working together to lift her out, are creepy. The tone is all over the place, and on top of that the visuals flash from blaring daylight reality to shadowy animation. Moments of drama are punctuated by the realization that you’re being compelled to sympathize with a bunch of cockroaches. At the very least, it’s a unique effort in all kinds of ways, with some imaginative technical shots, but it’s also a shoestring budget with blockbuster ambitions. Furthermore, the lack of a DVD release means you’re stuck watching VHS tapes with very phoned-in English dubbing. The choppy result is a hard film to know how to take, but one thing is certain: a bug’s life ain’t always easy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somebody please get that rolled-up newspaper and smack Japanese writer-director Hiroaki Yoshida in the head with it. COCKROACHES doesn’t even qualify as a camp classic. Besides being thoroughly deranged, it’s also slow, dull, and numbingly mediocre.”–TV Guide

269. NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991)

“An adequate song score album for a movie that utterly failed to live up to its weird potential.”–Steven McDonald, reviewing the soundtrack to Nothing but Trouble

DIRECTED BY:

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

PLOT: Four carefree travelers go for a drive in New Jersey. They get pulled over in a small backwater town for running a stop sign and have to be escorted to the local judge. They are then imprisoned in a haunted-house like mansion that shares premises with a junkyard.

Still from Nothing But Trouble (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dan Aykroyd’s background probably destined him to make at least one weird movie. Both of his parents were Spiritists, and he’s had a fascination with the occult since childhood that inspired him to create Ghostbusters, among other hits.
  • This is Aykroyd’s sole directing credit (he also wrote). Canadian-born Aykroyd was once pulled over for a speeding ticket while on his motorcycle in the States, and had to be escorted to a courthouse in a small town. Legend has it that this movie was inspired by that event.
  • The movie had a budget of $40 million and only pulled in $8.5 million. Critics panned it, including Roger Ebert, who declined to review it in written form. It also got nominated for the Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Actress, Worst Supporting Actress (John Candy in drag), Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay, though it “won” only for Worst Supporting Actor (Akroyd).
  • Digital Underground worked their cameo in this movie into a music video for their 1991 single “Same Song,” which entered MTV rotation. It still shows up periodically on cable music stations.
  • After the movie flopped, Akroyd wrote an apology letter to the cast taking full credit for the film’s failure.
  • Pete Trbovich‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie with no shortage of contenders, the scenes everybody leaves raving about are the ones with the Mr. Bonestripper ride. This is a backyard roller-coaster in which victims are given a final ride before being dumped into a leering cartoon maw with mechanical teeth which grind the victims down to shiny, polished bones, which are then ejected out the back towards a bullseye target painted on a metal fence. It even has its own theme song, courtesy of the band Damn Yankees. Are we having fun yet?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Model train dining; subliminal penis nose; mutant junkyard fatties

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nothing but Trouble invents its own genre, hereby known as Industrial Gothic, which plays on the horrors of Americana. These extend to labyrinthine freeway exits, small town hicks, Rust Belt ghost towns, corrupt law enforcement, class struggles between disenfranchised Main Street and out-of-touch Wall Street, welded-together death machines, compulsive hoarding, and a lack of mental health care. Take a Canadian-born comedian who’s had a scary run in with American law enforcement and let him make a Kafkaesque pitch-black comedy that will be the first (and so far only) Industrial Gothic movie, and this is exactly what you get.


Original trailer for Nothing but Trouble

COMMENTS: To be a fan of weird movies, your expectations must Continue reading 269. NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991)