All posts by Pete Trbovich

RIP HARLAN ELLISON (1934-2018): THE LAST DISH OF ANGRY CANDY

died on June 27th, 2018, and the reaction around the Internet has been… strangely more subdued than I expected. Perhaps it’s because the man was so ill-suited to our politically correct times. Perhaps it’s because he alienated the Internet and computing technology in general to the point that the Internet collectively snubs him in self-defense. Most likely, it’s because for all the amazing volume of work he put out, he could have put out ten times more, but preferred to become a professional litigant first and a creator second. Sci-fi forums and geek blogs are taking a bit more notice, but even there he’s best remembered as a lovably grumpy bastard.

Harlan EllisonBut me, I’m a train wreck today. All writers, whether they know it or not, have lost a brother. True, Ellison was a walking human pile of road rage, but he devoted half his life to activism that we’re better off for. The price he paid was becoming an insufferable bastard to everyone he met. Sometimes the universe needs an angry man. Just be glad it didn’t pick you.

In Ellison’s spirit of gonzo honesty in writing, let me spill some of my ugliest guts for you: Growing up, I was as good as raised by wolves, a functional orphan. I was only born because two hippies met on a blanket at Woodstock and the acid going around didn’t turn them off; hippies grow up to be bums with psychosis in Southern California and, thank Ronald Reagan, California is a rotten place to get help for being crazy. I ran away from home every chance I got, and damned if I wasn’t better off on the streets. Reading was the only thing I could always afford to do. So authors became my surrogate family, and Harlan Ellison was in there second or third place as one of the authors who shaped what I have become today.

I shouldn’t say that so literally, lest you think I’d been through five divorces and a scandal for groping women on stage. I’ve been married 25 years (the lady is still sane, miracles never cease), and I know not to make a huge ass of myself in public, at least not without reason. Ellison swore off having kids early; I enjoyed the adventure of raising a family. But the professional side of me, the creator’s side, owes a lot to him. I don’t know how much exactly. My brain is its own little animal living up there in my skull. I don’t inquire into its affairs and it doesn’t bother with me.

But Harlan, even the smart-ass, referred to his writing as an addiction, and God can I ever identify. People in real life (the meat space outside the Interwebs, where today there’s an extreme heat advisory) ask me why I picked freelance writing of all careers. And I always answer that it didn’t; it chose me. I have piss-poor patience with coworkers, a tissue-thin boredom threshold, and a word machine in my head that WILL. NOT. SHUT. UP. I dream a new novel every night. I blather to myself on autopilot while I fumble with coffee in the morning. Left to my own devices, I will wander around the house practicing dad jokes and alliteration headlines and catchy shower thoughts on everybody until they hide in the closets. If I haven’t worked in awhile, I start yelling at the TV because soap opera writers can’t plot for sour beans, and I run around making up homemade labels with more imaginative brand names for the peanut butter, and I rip up the newspaper and chew the crossword puzzle in my foaming mouth.

There’s no pill for hypergraphia and hyperlexia. Writing is merely my handle for mental illness. It just so happens to be a paying skill too, but if it wasn’t, I’d be on a desert island scrawling rants in crab blood on coconut fronds and sending them out in corked bottles.

We are all hideous hobgoblins of disease and insanity, that’s what Harlan taught us.

His only work commemorated here, A Boy And His Dog, is but a thread of his work. Over in Star Trek forums he’s known only for the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and little else. Video game forums are remembering him for the game I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, adapted from his short story, and little else. Practical joker culture remembers him for mailing a dead gopher to a publisher he was having one of his endless quarrels with—and little else. But saddest of all, the crooks of this world breathe a little easier today, because he was way more trouble to them than he was to anybody else. Funny thing about Harlan Ellison: He had the work ethic of a monk melded with the attention span of a gerbil, so he dabbled in every medium, culture, franchise, fandom, and genre he could find, but always produced a landmark work in whatever he set his hand to do. Of course he was weird and original and feisty and controversial, he contained the soul of a rabid Balrog with PMS.

As , another tortured genius who ran all his life from hellbent demons, would have put it, Harlan Ellison was too weird to live and too rare to die. Like a comet striking the Earth, there will be an impact crater where he was for a long time.

338. FREAKS (1932)

Recommended

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”–prologue to Freaks

Freaks is one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio.”–David Skal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles

PLOT: At a circus, an evil performer intends to marry a sideshow midget to exploit him for his wealth. Eventually her plans extend to attempted murder. The midget’s fellow sideshow denizens have his back, exacting a primitive form of carnival justice.

BACKGROUND:

  • Freaks was based on Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs.”
  •  Director Tod Browning started out as a contortionist performing in the circus himself, an inspiration from which he drew for this movie.
  • Browning leveraged his clout from helming the previous year’s hit Dracula to get Freaks made. The controversial film nearly ended his career, however; he would direct only four more projects (working uncredited on two of them) before retiring in 1939.
  • MGM stars Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and Jean Harlow all turned down parts in the film due to the subject matter.
  • Freaks was often banned by state censors in its original form when it first came out. It was not allowed to be exhibited in the United Kingdom until the late 1963. It’s since been cut from a reported 90-minute running time, leaving us with the modern edit that runs just over an hour. The original full length may forever be lost. The cut version was a dud at the box office.
  • Although Freaks bombed on its original release and was pulled from theaters, it survived when (Maniac) bought the rights and took the film on tour (often using alternate titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes) in the late 1940s. Freaks was screened at Cannes in 1962 and received positive reappraisals, sparking its second life as a cult film.
  • “Entertainment Weekly” ranked Freaks third in their 2003 list of the Top 50  Cult Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sing it along with us, Internet: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The Wedding Feast (it gets its own title card) is an omnipresent meme for very good reasons. Fast forward to it if you must, because this is the true beginning of Freaks.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sensually connected twins; “Gooble-gobble!”; half-boy with Luger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Life is not always fair; sometimes you’re born with no legs. But sometimes your movie comes along at the precise pinpoint in history where it could get made. We will always have exactly one Freaks, because even substituting CGI for actually disabled people, nobody in a modern day Hollywood studio would have the balls to remake this.


The opening scenes of Freaks

COMMENTS: We all know examples of movies where their hype far Continue reading 338. FREAKS (1932)

CAPSULE: ZACHARIAH (1971)

DIRECTED BY: George Englund

FEATURING: John Rubinstein, , , Country Joe and the Fish

PLOT: The title character is a young gun on a quest to become a gunslinger in the old west, championing his way through the stock trials of a western shoot-em-up, complete with a sidekick; several rock bands come along along for the ride.

Still from Zachariah (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a pity, but after you get past it being a comedy-western with great rock bands of the era in it, this movie ends up being a standard period piece of hippie tomfoolery, made to accompany a six-pack of brewskies and a well-packed bong… but a long ways from being weird, despite being connected to half the movies on this site.

COMMENTS: It’s hard not to get your hopes up when you check out the credits of Zachariah. First, there’s Don Johnson and the band Country Joe (McDonald) and the Fish—famous for the Woodstock “Fish Cheer.” Other bands include James Gang, White Lightnin’, and the Julliard-trained New York Rock Ensemble. Then you find out it was written by Joe Massot and the members of the legendary Firesign Theater, and that at some point even George Harrison discussed producing this movie on ’ Apple label. On top of that, it’s adapted from Herman “Steppenwolf” Hesse’s seminal Zen novel “Siddhartha,” and is also an acid western that’s not named El Topo (another Beatles-entwined production). Did we mention it has an early song from Michael Kamen, who would go on to contribute to soundtracks for movies such as Brazil? This movie has a lot of promise to live up to as “The First Electric Western.” Does it deliver? Well… yeah, kinda/sorta, but it turns out a lot closer to a three-years-earlier Blazing Saddles than a one-year-later El Topo.

And speaking of deliveries, that’s how our protagonist, Zachariah (John Rubinstein), gets his gun, in a mail-order package eagerly ripped open in the dirt while a nearby band in the middle of the desert plays our opening number. While practicing his butterfingered quick-draw skills, he encounters a “wanted” poster for an outlaw gang called “the Crackers,” and just like that, he has his first quest. But his first stop is to his blacksmith friend Matthew (Don Johnson) to order some custom-made bullets. No sooner are they fooling around with the gun than they chance upon the Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish), a singing band of robbers. Zachariah gets into his first duel with a gruff bar patron, bolstering his nerve enough to join the Crackers, who handle music better than outlawing. They’re best put to use distracting a town with a concert while Zachariah and Matthew make away from the bank with big canvas sacks with dollar signs on them. Soon the two young guns will part ways with the Crackers, and other gangs, eventually splitting apart themselves, only to meet again for a showdown when Zachariah is out to pasture and Matthew is now top gun of the west.

The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet it could have taken itself even less seriously and been a whole lot more fun. The Firesign Theater distanced themselves from this project later, and you can almost see the gaping holes where their best jokes must have been cut out by some killjoy. You may find yourself thinking of funnier westerns as you watch this, wishing for somebody to punch a horse or take themselves hostage. The closest we get to weird is the corny cardboard set of Belle Starr’s cabaret, where a whole band serenades live in the bedroom while our hero gets his spurs polished. Fortunately, the tepid pace of the film doesn’t detract too much from the musical showcase, giving us moments that say “Holy crap, that’s Elvin Jones, the legendary jazz drummer!” and “Wait, was that Joe Walsh?” Zachariah has Heavy Metal syndrome: watch the movie once, but play the soundtrack until it wears out your iPod.

That being said, this film is to be accorded respect as the cultural museum piece it is. When Zachariah was in theaters, the musicals “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” were all the rage, the Vietnam War had yet to play out, and you could still get hassled for being a male with long hair in the wrong neighborhood. Musically, it captures the moment when country-and-western calved away from mainstream rock, doing so with such perfect timing that it’s a wonder the Flying Burrito Brothers or at least the Byrds didn’t manage to sneak onto the set somewhere. It’s often called the last gasp of the ’60s, on the cusp of ceding the old guard of comedy to the new ’70s era of Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, and Carol Burnett. There’s an attempt at symbolic meanings when the story gets serious; ponder that “Zachariah” is one of the final minor prophets of the Old Testament, while “Matthew” is the first New Testament disciple, and you catch a film seemingly aware of the turning page of history. It even hints at homosexual love amongst cowboys a long time before Brokeback Mountain raised the subject. Perhaps time has not been kind to this film; but then, The Monkees’ Head is three years older, and hasn’t lost a twinkle of its shine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An oddity then, certainly, but an enjoyable one.”– Anthony Nield, “The Digital Fix” (DVD)

CAPSULE: I AM HERE…. NOW (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Breen

FEATURING: Neil Breen, Joy Senn, Elizabeth Sekora

PLOT: Jesus visits Earth to fix our energy dilemmas while performing random miracles along the way. It’s that simple, we’re done.

Still from I Am Here.... Now (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Did this movie actually get recommended for the whole seven plastic doll heads out on the ground in the desert? Or, wait, was it for the knife soaked in strawberry jam to represent street violence? The Halloween mask that flickers into view a few times? The only way anyone could claim this movie is the weirdest thing they’d seen is if they were literally a fetus watching it from inside a womb somehow.

COMMENTS: Holy ! This movie was not only written, directed, and produced by Neil Breen, but he plays the lead role in it too, which is apparently his usual mode. And Jesus Christ! No really, Jesus Christ is in this movie, played by Neil. Who is here. Now. So this is a whole vanity project where the creator wants to play Jesus—just try to tell me that we’re not in for a grand old time! Jesus has computer parts glued to him, though, and he lands in the Nevada desert from an incoming comet, so he’s Space Jesus. He angrily shakes a skull (there’s always one laying about when he needs one) while demanding of it why humans have failed him. Yorick doesn’t answer. Space Jesus is really bummed about how humans have turned out. Because we humans sit around drinking beer, getting stoned, and shooting guns, even if Space Jesus happens to be standing in the way. But if you try to shoot Space Jesus, he will take your clothes and truck and drive into Las Vegas, so he can find more things to scowl at. Hope you’re stocked up on your Depends, because the pants-pissing hilarity is just beginning.

While Space Jesus approves of our finally getting the hang of solar power, he’s unhappy about our greedy money-grubbing capitalism slowing progress down and vows to make it go away. So we hear speeches about clean energy vs. greedy business, and then we know what message Space Jesus wants to pound into our stubborn, concrete skulls for the remaining hour. As Big Business shuts down Solar Power, a laid-off employee laments the state of affairs while pushing a baby in a stroller; hopefully this long-winded dialog is not taking too much time out of the baby’s schedule. We follow her predicament for awhile, as her twin sister steers her into being a stripper to support her baby. She sinks into a world of urban depravity right away. In fact, “sinks into depravity right away” is pretty much Team Human’s job in the whole film, because only Team Space Jesus can rescue them with the power of his deadpan pout and Photoshoped glowing hand.

As hilariously somber as Space Jesus is when he’s onscreen, it gets even funnier when extras have to memorize and recite his Wikipedia paragraphs of dialog at each other without a whiff of actual acting, because they are just finger puppets to Neil Breen. Finger puppets who are never allowed to wear bras or button their blouses up, and who lash out in violence at the drop of a jump cut. Really, the supporting cast is the biggest puzzle: none of them, not even the ones who are supposed to be thugs, look like they’ve lived through hard enough times to be willing to be in this embarrassing movie for nothing. They must have been paid in grown-up money, yet not a single one of them puts out a spark of effort. They even scream in lower-case: “don’t cut off my hand. aaaaaaaaaaah.” In every shot with Neil and a supporting cast member, watch their faces as they try not to crack up. Out of all the things Breen’s bad at, scriptwriting is his weakest suit.

The cinematography is competent, letting the desert look beautiful, and this movie at least succeeds at clearly and boldly telling the story it wants to tell (yes, Breakfast of Champions scarred me deep). Any idiot could follow this: it is about Space Jesus the entire time, and at that, it’s a more likable Jesus story than could produce. Granted, this movie was produced on an architect’s budget (no really, that’s his day job), and Neil Breen is obviously nuttier than squirrel poop. But at least he has a point, one which resonates with every Millennial who joined #OccupyWallStreet. It’s not even that bad; I Am Here…. Now has a tranquil pace and long, quiet stretches, so at least the movie shuts up and lets you reflect on how thankful you are to have moved the hell out of Las Vegas before he started filming random people on the street. Even the soundtrack is relaxing, and doubtlessly royalty-free (stockmusic.net appears in the credits). In sum, Neil Breen is clearly suffering from nearly the same set of mental symptoms that plagued , just without being an innovative jazz musician. Well excuuuuuse him.

Neil Breen does not allow retailers to sell his films. All DVDs must be bought directly from him at either http://fatefulfindings.biz/ or http://www.pass-thru-film.com/. For older movies like I Am Here…. Now, write a note in the comments box when ordering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

I Am Here….Now is a messy but absolutely hysterical film.  Breen’s complete inept ability to create a film made me bust out laughing a lot but it also had me saying the phrase “What the f#@k?” at least every two minutes or so.”–Rev, Ron, Rev on Movies

Also see the snarky video review at Cinema Snob.

CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Alan Rudolph

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: If this movie had a plot, it would be about a penultimate meeting between a used car salesman going mad and a brilliant but unrecognized sci-fi writer. (That’s what it said on the tin, anyway.)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a list of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time, a designation which requires a length of video to be both (a) weird and (b) a movie. Breakfast of Champions fails at (b). Just because it is on film and has actors and sets does not make it a movie, in the same way a pile of random lumber and bricks is not a house. (And it isn’t even the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation; that honor goes to Slapstick.)

COMMENTS: The present author has put off this review for far too long, because when it comes to director Alan Rudolph’s aborted run at adapting Breakfast of Champions by the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. into a film, there are no right answers. There is no way to talk about a movie that is stuttering mute about itself. Bottom line: Breakfast is white noise, static, not even interesting enough to be called chaos. Even after you take into account that Vonnegut and Hollywood go together like pickles and peanut butter, and even after you grant that of all the Vonnegut novels to pick for film adaptation, this is the one with the big red warning sign saying “DO NOT ADAPT!” on it, and even after you allow that Rudolph the red-assed director worked from a screenplay he wrote himself and was therefore punching about twenty million kilotons above his weight… there, see? We’re out of space already!

Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t lend himself to short book reviews, either, so bear with us:

IN THE BOOK: Dwayne Hoover is a used car dealership owner who’s going nuts. Kilgore Trout (a stock character in many Vonnegut novels) is a hack science fiction author who’s a half-mad genius. Eliot Rosewater, another half-mad millionaire philanthropist from yet another Vonnegut novel, writes Trout a fan letter that sends the author on an odyssey to appear at an arts festival in Hoover’s town. Hoover and Trout meet, Trout gives Hoover a copy of his latest novel, Hoover reads it, the book triggers full-blown insanity, and he blows up his life and pretty much exits the story. Vonnegut appears in his own story for the only time in his career, to approach Trout and confront him with the reality that he is himself a character in somebody else’s novel, electing to set him free. On top of this, Vonnegut skips around, telling things out of order, draws cartoon pictures in the story, makes satirical points about consumerism (among many things), and frames humans as vats of chemical reactions with no free will. He also says this novel is intended as a purge to rid himself of mental clutter. It is a unique work in Vonnegut’s career; you can see the seam between his earlier work and later works.

IN THE MOVIE: Some or none or all of the above happens. It is honest to God impossible to tell. If you ran the book through a blender Continue reading CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

CAPSULE: EVIL ED (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Anders Jacobsson

FEATURING: Johan Rudebeck, Per Löfberg, Olof Rhodin

PLOT: A meek film editor at a studio gets assigned to edit a stack of gory slasher movies.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too lazy to be weird. As it stands, a parody of the Evil Dead series didn’t have much of a shot at being good, but they could have at least taken advantage of the situation and made something inspiring. Instead, all the blood is drained out of this iron-deficient corpse as the bored crew puts in the minimal effort to collect a paycheck and blow it on vodka.

COMMENTS: Evil Dead fans may feel compelled to watch this movie out of the same sense of duty that drives Star Wars fans to put themselves through the Star Wars Holiday Special. Every fandom has its penance. The present author will confess to not being a particularly heavy fan of either, but as a confirmed Trekkie, I’m pretty smug, because even our worst parody still has John Belushi in it. And then we got Galaxy Quest (which was like Spaceballs to Star Wars), and that cool “Black Mirror” episode on top of that. But I digress, because—let’s be honest here—the rest of this review is a waste of all our time anyway.

This Swedish-produced Evil Dead parody starts out with Good Ed—Edward the film editor. Ed gets transferred to the “Splatter and Gore” department, where reports to department head Samuel Campbell. Ooooh, I get it, like the director “Sam” and the actor “Campbell”! That’s what passes for a funny idea here. Ed is assigned to edit several reels in the studio’s “Loose Limbs” series. Ed uses the exact same dingus Tyler Durden used in Fight Club to splice film strips around the nasty parts too spicy for the censors as we witness random scenes meant to lampoon the original material.

But wait, will the constant exposure to demented slasher cinema turn Ed into a madman? We guess so, because Ed starts having hallucinations when he’s away from his work station, pleading with his boss to be transferred back, and generally acting like an anxious fruitcake. As we get many jump-cut scenes from the films he’s editing, and the cliched springing-out-of-bed nightmare, things do get a tiny bit interesting as Ed becomes Evil Ed and menaces all around him. A goofy critter in the fridge (for all of two minutes) is a highlight, but sadly just one more throwaway gag. Things perk up at the hospital scenes at the back half hour of the movie, mostly because it’s been a while since they bothered to light a set properly. Even when the movie makes an effort, it’s the bare minimum, while I’m slapping my face to stay awake because espresso stopped having any effect.

The problem with doing this as a parody is that Evil Dead was already a parody. Bruce Campbell’s Ash is a hundred times funnier than anybody in Evil Ed, and he isn’t even in the major leagues. When Ash is brandishing a rifle to a crowd of medieval yokels and quoting his retail store’s bland jingle in Army of Darkness, it’s clear that the movie isn’t taking itself seriously, right? So what’s the point of this one? Even as a parody, Evil Ed isn’t on target; they miss dozens of opportunities to riff on the over-the-top cheeseball lines (“Hail to the king!” “Blow your butts to kingdom come!” “Good… bad… I’m the guy with the gun.” etc. ) that made the Evil Dead franchise so famous. Evil Ed runs out of ideas before the credits roll, and then flounders around in pointless awkwardness. It’s like watching the Underpants Gnomes plan a script where the big middle part is blank, not even interesting enough to be memorably bad.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What starts as a promising spoof of the vast chasm between Europe’s art film past and the corruption of cinema as practiced by U.S. splatter pic specialists like Sam Raimi, John Carpenter and their ilk, slowly runs out of creative gas and becomes victim to the excesses of the gore genre.”–Steven Gaydos, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Ann Kristin. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGUISH (1987)

Recommended

 

DIRECTED BY: Bigas Luna

FEATURING: Zelda Rubinstein, , Talia Paul

PLOT: An audience watches a movie about a serial killer under hypnotic control by his mother killing off patrons of a movie theater, while themselves being victims of an obsessed killer prowling their own theater.

Still from Anguish (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: You are getting very sleepy, back and forth, watch the metronome. Once you were like a snail, hiding in your shell. Now you’re on an elevator, going down to the twentieth floor, the nineteenth, the eighteenth… when you land, you will become one with us in nominating this unique thriller onto the List as one of the weirdest film experiences to be fooouuunnnd.

COMMENTS: As you read this review, if at any time you feel your mind leaving your body, you should cease reading immediately. Your humble author didn’t follow this warning, and look how I turned out. No really, we’re just passing along the William Castle-like warnings from the beginning of the film. But it’s good advice anyway, because this horror flick starts out invoking standard slasher fare, but ends up reminding you more of The Cabin in the Woods. We meet the creepy old lady Alice (Zelda Rubinstein) and her grown adult son John (Michael Lerner, also in Barton Fink) who live together in a house otherwise occupied by pet snails and pigeons. John is an eye doctor who is ironically going blind as a result of untreated diabetes, and his mother hypnotizes him into murdering people so he can harvest their eyes for her. Not that she’s motivated to cure his ailing vision; oh no, the eyes are just to increase her witchy powers. Among her many talents is the ability to remotely hear conversations by listening to a seashell, and project her own consciousness into her son’s mind when he’s out and about. And for a man losing his vision, John throws a pretty mean scalpel anyway.

But did you think that was the whole movie? Ha, just kidding, this is actually a movie about a theater audience watching the above movie, and getting melodramatically distressed at it. As the hypnotic scenes commence, the audience falls under the spell, variously swaying into a trance, or squirming uncomfortably as if they were held against their will to watch. Ah, but we go back to the movie they’re watching, and now John, in a quest for fresh victims at his mother’s behest, invades yet another movie theater showing The Lost World. Even this black-and-white dinosaur adventure holds its audience enthralled enough to provide great cover for John to quietly off the victims and collect the eyeballs, in between dinosaur roars. A young lady leaves what is revealed to be the theater showing The Mommy, where we’re now starting to get lost as to which layer of of movie we’re in. As we follow the distressed girl getting her bearings in the theater bathroom, we realize that she wasn’t watching The Lost World, but The Mommy, the movie we’ve been mostly concerned with up until now.

Just when we’re begging not to get anymore confused, a new murder plot forms around the people watching The Mommy. As the events of The Mommy continue, the movie theater staff and eventually the audience watching it are preyed upon by a new killer, even as John in The Mommy scalpels victims in his own theater while this new killer prefers a trusty gun. From here on out, events blur between the two theaters, as the film practically dares you to keep up. The new killer huddles in the bathroom and also babbles “mother”; it turns out he’s a fan obsessed with The Mommy. Both killers barricade the doors of their respective theaters, the better to trap victims for an all-out rampage. At times you’re watching an audience watching an audience, at other times you’re asking which bathroom we’re in, and at times even The Lost World’s events blend with the various audiences’ experiences. And guess what? We’re not done shifting points of reality yet, because it turns out we were watching a movie in a movie in a movie… or something. And you thought Inception was hard to follow!

If you’re a big fan of Zelda Rubinstein, who also plays the spooky psychic from the Poltergeist series, then this is your party. Rubinstein dominates the earliest film, her dulciloquent baby-doll voice rasping away and chanting hypnotic spells as her face fills the screen in between shots of whirling spirals, ticking metronomes, rocking lights, and sometimes shots filmed with a spinning camera—bring your barf bag. This goes on for most of the inner movie (and the movie’s movie, and the movie’s movie’s movie…), and when it’s not, the visuals establish artistic motifs around eyes and spirals until it switches to the stacked-movie premise, which invites us to ponder the thin wall between violent movies and obsessed fans (which gets uncomfortably close to later real-life events, even). Anguish does everything it can to drill itself into your conscious. It’s a corkscrew roller-coaster ride through a hall of mirrors, smartly setting you up for an expectation and then veering off into a new curve. While it has some flaws, such as the secondary cast at times giving  performances so wooden they smells like lemony furniture polish, Anguish works its ass off to end up giving you several movies in one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Well, after seeing it in an actual movie theatre (one eerily similar to the two featured in the film), I can safely say that this deeply weird endeavour definitely needs to be seen at a proper movie theatre.”–Yum-Yum, House of Self-Indulgence

CAPSULE: THE SHOUT (1978)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jerzy Skolimowski

FEATURING: Alan Bates, Susannah York, ,

PLOT: A stranger wanders into the lives of a British composer and his wife, demonstrating powerful magic he learned from Aborigines in Australia as he torments the man and takes his wife hostage.

The Shout (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like many British horror tales of the 1970s, The Shout flirts with weirdness at every other step, but in the end we have to reluctantly conclude that it only gets as weird as necessary to tell its unconventional tale. Tim Curry, the man who gave the world Dr. Frankenfurter and its most memorable Pennywise, sits here in a sweater, as passive and conservative as a judge—making that two weirder movies you’ve seen Tim Curry in right there.

COMMENTS: Robert Graves (Tim Curry) visits the grounds of a mental hospital to referee a cricket match, when the Chief Medical Officer introduces him to Charles Crossley (Alan Bates). Crossley tells Graves the story of (another?) man named Crossley, who possesses a strange, magical power. Crossley invades the lives of a local composer and sound engineer and his wife, Anthony and Rachael Fielding (John Hurt and Susannah York). Anthony Fielding is now a patient at said hospital, and Crossley tells his tragic tale.

It turns out Crossley is a world-weary traveler who spent eighteen years in the Australian Outback, where he communed with Aborigine natives and learned their most powerful magic. Crossley, helping himself to the Fielding household, regales them with tales of his adventures punctuated by such shocking claims as having sired, then murdered, his children. But he has many more surprises, as he demonstrates with an Aborigine spell called “the shout,” which has the power to knock all who hear it stone dead. Crossley, an intimidating alpha male pulling primate rank on the too-polite couple, soon employs his dark magic to shatter their marriage. The couple are clearly no match for Crossley, who toys with them like a cat pawing at mice, for about the same reasons.

The story from there on out gets a little muddled, since it’s largely told with symbolism, atmosphere, and cut-in scenes which may be flashbacks or flash-forwards. Anthony is more Foley sound engineer than musician, and we’re treated to several scenes where he manipulates objects to produce bizarre sounds for recording in his studio. These scenes and their sounds punctuate the story. Another scene shows the couple asleep in their bed, while their sorcerer visitor appears in the mirror over their bed. Anthony wakes up and looks around, but doesn’t see Crossley. Was he there and disappeared, does he have the power to blank Anthony’s mind, or was Crossley only suggested in the mirror or perhaps even Anthony’s dream? The cumulative effect of all this muddling about is a film which is not like a conventional narrative, but instead like the memories as a real human brain, faulty and prone to distraction, would remember them. The pacing may be low-gear at times, but thanks to the excellent direction and hypnotizing performances, we’re too entranced by every detail to notice the time.

Lovingly shot in the British countryside of Devon, the film feels like a dreamy faerie tale in the old-fashioned Grimm style, with lots of Freudian subtext and horrors coming out of the sexual closet rather than from under the bed. Mr. Fielding is just about the victim of cuckoldry, overpowered and exiled from his own home by a master of dark forces. Early on, Mrs. Fielding finds a large bone in the sand and quickly buries it before her husband can see it, and there’s your symbolic foreshadowing. At the same time, we have the classic “unreliable narrator” puzzle. The story is told to us from inside an insane asylum: we are left to wonder how much is true, how much is a delusion, and how much is simply a lie. Perhaps this is nothing but a fanciful exaggeration of a cheating-wife story? The shifting structure of the film, given to us in layers and flashbacks, doesn’t help us settle our minds about it, but does mirror the presumed mental state of the characters. A widely-praised film of its time, which won Jury’s Grand Prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, The Shout deserves a second look by any British horror fan looking for a peer to The Wicker Man or Don’t Look Now.

The Shout was formerly available on video-on-demand but those contracts seem to have expired. It’s currently only available on British import DVD or Blu-ray so Americans will need an all-region player.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Robert Graves’s weird story becomes a weird movie…”–Adrian Turner, Radio Times

(This movie was nominated for review by reader jason slicker, who called it a “very creepy atmospheric cool piece of film.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

318. CUBE (1997)

“Five improbable entities stuffed together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation, just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the darkness.”–Rod Serling, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”

DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali

FEATURING: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller

PLOT: Apparently selected randomly, people appear in a mysterious, abstract structure which proves to be a vast complex of interconnected cubical rooms harboring random death traps. They struggle to find answers to their predicament and escape. Their lack of trust in each other gradually begins to pose as big a threat to their survival as does the Cube itself.

Still from Cube (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • Cube was shot in twenty days on a sound stage in Toronto with a budget of $350,000 (Canadian), under the auspices of the Canadian Film Center’s “First Feature Project.” CORE Digital Pictures supplied the post-production effects free of charge to show support for the Canadian film industry. It easily made its money back and has developed a cult following since.
  • Only one room was built for the set, although a partial second room was created to be visible through doors between rooms. Gel squares inserted over the lighted wall panels supply color changes.
  • All of the characters are named after prisons, and each name is alleged to have significance for their personalities and fates. Maybe it’s just a fun fan theory?
  • If you search the web for “industrial die holder,” you’ll see what they used for the door handles. Pick one up at the hardware store and add it to your arcane prop collection.
  • Cube has two sequels. Cube 2: Hypercube is basically more of the same, with new and more devious traps, while Cube Zero was an unapologetic B-movie prequel that supplied unnecessary answers to the Cube’s existence. Writer/director Natali was not involved in the sequels.
  • A remake, to be directed by , was announced in 2015.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a claustrophobic production like Cube, our choices are narrowed down to which architectural gimmick makes the deepest impression. We might as well spoil as little as possible and select the first one, where a bald character gets diced by a fast-moving razor-wire trap. It’s all the more shocking because he’s the face featured on all the film posters. The fact that he freezes a few second before collapsing into a pile of chunky salsa just adds to the impact: it’s a Wile E. Coyote moment (and a visual pun, because the character got cubed), yet doesn’t play silly enough to lose us.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aliens or government?, prime number permutations, the edge

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cube is a great example of how a movie’s premise doesn’t need to dictate its weirdness factor. The plot is straight out of the pulp horror ghetto, but the execution is original and intriguing enough that it transcends its genre. The developments between the characters and the structure of their prison lends itself to a puzzle just tantalizing enough to lead viewers into thinking they’re right around the corner from solving it, without ever actually answering much. The end result is an engineer’s fever dream.


Original trailer for Cube

COMMENTS: Are you an aspiring filmmaker with limited resources Continue reading 318. CUBE (1997)

307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

“There are a lot of strange men practicing medicine these days.”–The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT: Dr. Phibes is an underground aristocrat who has sworn a campaign of revenge against the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In his downtime, he listens to his automaton orchestra in his bizarre Art Deco lair and stages dance numbers with his beautiful mute assistant. A series of gruesome and bizarre murders, themed after Egyptian biblical plagues, attracts the attention of Scotland Yard, who strive to put together the puzzle and stop Phibes.

still from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • The ten Biblical plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus 7-12 were (in order) blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn. Phibes replaces gnats and flies with bats and rats.
  • Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein (not to be confused with the more famous William Goldman) has just three screenwriting credits on his IMDB page: this movie, this movie’s misbegotten sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), about a team of dogs trained to thwart an armored car heist. His short, yet quirky, career also includes a series of self-published sequels to Phibes.
  • The initial movie poster was a collage of bad judgments. It spoils Dr. Phibes’ disfigured face, which was supposed to be a surprise near the ending; it implies a romance between Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia that never happens; and the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re ugly,” a parody of 1970‘s Love Story, set up audiences to expect a romantic comedy—to their doubtless bewilderment.
  • Phibes fits the description of the rarely appreciated genre known as Diesel Punk. It’s set in the early decades of the 20th century and features a highly speculative series of plot devices involving technology that would at least have been cutting edge for the time. It’s also a museum of Art Deco styles.
  • In this pre-CGI year of 1971, some of the scenes involving animals don’t come off too well. The bats scene was done with harmless fruit bats, who adorably cuddle up on the victim’s bed while they’re supposed to be menacing. The later rats in the cockpit were equally unconvincing as a threat.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We give the obligatory disclaimer that we have a multitude of scenes to choose from. Of all the elaborate deaths, the amphibian death mask stands tall as the signature moment. One of Dr. Phibes’ victims attends a costume party with a frog’s head mask supplied by Phibes himself. The mask is designed to slowly crush the victim’s head. As Dr. Hargraves falls downstairs and the mask squeezes the last drops of blood from his head, the party music plays on and a crowd of animal-headed guests look down. The scene strikes the perfect note between the grotesque and the campy, and upon that note the theme of this movie plays.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Animatronic swing band; unicorn impalement; Brussels sprout locust bait.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dr. Phibes is the character Vincent Price was born to play. What more need we say? Ten times larger than life, Dr. Phibes is a dish of ham and cheese, a pulp villain sprung whole from the pages of vintage horror comics. The elaborate murder plots of his bent imagination fit perfectly into this film’s campy Art Deco/diesel-punk universe like a rare sapphire on a Faberge egg.

Original trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes

COMMENTS: The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with our title character (Vincent Price) rising from the floor on a mobile pipe organ, Continue reading 307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)