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Hey, he just showed up one day, you know?

222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

“It was just too bizarre.

“Honestly, when I watched Spirited Away for the first time back in 2008, I didn’t like it for the same reason as you. I just found it too weird.”

–IMDB message board dissenters on Spirited Away

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki; , Jason Marsden, (English dub)

PLOT: While moving to a new town, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a detour to a seemingly abandoned amusement park in rural Japan. Once the sun sets, the park transforms into an otherworldly resort for spirits and gods overseen by the cruel witch Yubaba. Now separated from her parents, Chihiro must learn to survive among an array of weird creatures as she attempts to reunite her family and return home.

Still from Spirited Away (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 1998, after completing Princess Mononoke. He came out of retirement in 2001 to make Spirited Away.
  • Disney Studios had distributed Studio Ghibli’s previous film, Princess Mononoke, in the United States, with disappointing results. They put little money into marketing the film, but strong reviews and word of mouth turned it into a hit, and Disney’s partnership with Ghibli was cemented from that point on.
  • Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with 52 wins granted by other organizations).
  • Spirited Away is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.
  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 2001, after completing Spirited Away. He came out of retirement in 2004 to make Howl’s Moving Castle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lured into the park by a delicious scent, Chihiro’s parents come upon a vacant restaurant filled with sumptuous, exotic dishes. The two immediately begin to fill their plates, ignoring their daughter’s worries that they’ll be punished for taking the food. After the park begins its transformation, Chihiro returns to find her parents bloated and hunched over piles of scraps. She tries to warn her father about what is happening, but when he looks at her she sees only the sweating, engorged face of a pig. The grunting pig ignores Chihiro and climbs over the restaurant’s counter, only to be swatted away by an unseen figure’s reptilian arm. The pig then crashes to the ground with a primal squeal, frightening Chihiro as she cries out for her parents and runs into a street filled with tall, anonymous ghosts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pig parents; “No Face” eats; three heads and a giant baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki plays on the normal fears of lost children as the basis for an outlandish, frightening fantasy about a young girl being thrust into the incomprehensible life of an adult. The imagination of the setting is so immense that it seems to dwarf the film itself, suggesting a fully realized universe of magic and monsters with borders that extend far beyond the frame of the story.


Disney Trailer for Spirited Away

COMMENTS: Spirited Away begins with the main character, Chihiro, Continue reading 222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

LIST CANDIDATE: SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Hiltzik

FEATURING: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields

PLOT: Eight years after her father and fraternal twin were killed there in a boating accident, introverted teen Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) returns to Camp Arawak alongside her protective cousin and adopted brother, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Children and counselors alike bully the girl for her shyness, but those tormenters soon begin dying under bizarre circumstances. Meanwhile, Angela’s budding romance with a fellow camper awakens her dormant sexuality, and with it troubling memories of what truly happened eight years ago.

Still from Sleepaway Camp (1983)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: By incorporating a wistful portrayal of summer camp into the sleazy slasher mold, Sleepaway Camp offers a uniquely schizophrenic experience of a horror film. Furthermore, its plot ultimately explodes in an extremely violent and sexual metaphor of an ending, which remains controversial to this day.

COMMENTS: Riding on the coattails of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp neither invented the slasher genre nor the idea of the summer camp as a killing ground. Furthermore, Hiltzik’s film falls short of its predecessors through amateurish performances, disjointed storytelling, and deaths that are slightly more goofy than frightful. In the annals of ‘80s horror, Sleepaway Camp therefore seems less an original than a misbegotten child.

However, by combining the juvenility of his setting and main characters with the adult themes of a slasher, Hiltzik still produces a memorably off-kilter film. As visceral moments like the disfiguring of a pedophile crudely segue into mirthful scenes of camp life—such as Ricky pranking a nerd named Mozart—Sleepaway Camp embraces rather than hides its incoherence. In turn, Camp Arawak becomes an unreal place where the vulgar and innocent both exist, not in conflict, but as mismatched companions to each other. Sleepaway Camp’s lack of style thereby becomes its signature style, creating an unwieldy and dissonant tone that, in the end, perfectly reflects the troubled, divided mind of its killer.

That killer’s identity is now the stuff of legend, in a final twist that makes an already fractured story snap. Through that one last disturbing image, the film transcends its low budget and even lower quality to become a classic oddity among slasher fans. While Sleepaway Camp is not one of the best horror films out there, it continues to be one of the weirdest.

Shout! Factory’s recent “Sleepaway Camp Collector’s Edition” comes with an array of extras, two of which could qualify for a list of 366 Weird Special Features. The first is a short made by sleepawaycampmovies.com’s webmaster Jeffy Hayes starring Sleepaway Camp supporting actor Karen Fields, who murders a deadbeat dad and his girlfriend using, among other weapons, a turkey baster. The second is an uncomfortably earnest music video featuring the vocal talents of Jonathan Tiersten, the now middle-aged actor who played Ricky. As Tiersten somberly croons in an empty theater, and Fields wields a deadly curling iron in a nod to her famous role, one wonders if the two still haven’t gotten over their roles in Sleepaway Camp.

Joining those shorts are several bonuses that more directly relate to Sleepaway Camp, including an album of on-set photographs, multiple commentaries, and a 45-minute documentary about the making of the movie. Each of those extras show the person who loves Sleepaway Camp most may be its star; Felissa Rose beams nostalgically while recounting the friendships, drama, and fun she experienced during filming. Despite the presence of cameras and microphones, production stills of the teenage cast smiling in those idyllic woods and cabins suggest a summer to remember for decades to come.

CAPSULE: HER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: Still wounded by his divorce, professional letter writer Theodore Twombly retreats from human relationships into a lonely life of videogames, gossip websites, and anonymous phone sex. However, his world changes after he upgrades to “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” a sentient program named Samantha that he initially treats with suspicion but soon accepts as a confidant, then a lover. When Twombly and Samantha becomes more intimate, though, her insatiable curiosity about the world strains their bond and threatens to recreate the heartbreak that Twombly experienced once before.

Still from Her (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Twombly and Samantha’s pairing is weird, Jonze’s story glosses over the odder aspects of the couple to concentrate on the universal qualities of the affair. The early introduction of phone sex normalizes the sensuous but purely vocal encounter between man and program that begins their romance, and the casual acceptance of their relationship by others further overlooks uncomfortable questions that another film might dwell upon. Instead, Jonze uses the scenario to fancifully illustrate the needs, passions, and pains felt by anyone who falls in love, even a woman who exists within a digital cloud.

COMMENTS: One of Her’s most endearing moments occurs after Twombly and Samantha’s first sexual encounter, when he awkwardly tells his OS that he isn’t interested in a serious relationship. It’s strange to see a morning after scene play out between a man and his computer, and yet that strangeness is absent from the dialogue as Johannson responds with the same charming annoyance and veiled attraction she’d provide in any romantic comedy. On the surface Samantha is defined by her nonphysical nature, but the warmth of Johannson’s performance shows the character’s emotions are not constrained by the lack of a body, that she feels with as much range and depth as any person. Rather than asking if computer programs could ever feel love, as other sci-fi films have, love is not merely possible but inevitable for Samantha. In Her, love is a fundamental part of intelligent life, and so anyone worthy of being called alive, whether human or artificial, naturally must be able to love.

At the same time, Her envisions an emotionally barren future where media technology isolates people from each other, eroding the personal connections they need to thrive. Twombly embodies that isolation as he shuffles from work to home with his eyes glued to one high-tech device or another, engaging others in only the most superficial ways. However, Phoenix’s awkward, self-enclosing performance also suggests someone not just glued to technology but also afraid of emotions, even as his sensitive letters hint at a deeply empathetic soul. Like Samantha, Twombly has a natural ability to love, but unlike his newborn OS he is burdened by past romantic failures and the fear of seeing them repeated, which discourages him from pursuing love at all. That fear pushes Twombly into a stupefying routine of media consumption that keeps other people, and the emotional risks attached to them, safely at bay. Whereas Samantha’s urge to love gives her life, Twombly’s reluctance to love leads him to numbly, thoughtlessly live out his days in front of machines, depriving him of a real life.

Given Twombly’s attachment to machines, it’s fitting that the person who finally reaches him is herself part of a machine. The chemistry between the characters is palpable despite Samantha’s invisibility, not solely because of Johannson’s strong voice work but also because of Phoenix’s total commitment to the conceit. In one scene Twombly shuts his eyes and lets Samantha guide him through a busy carnival, and as he follows her voice he moves so eagerly and joyfully that she could be leading him by the hand. Conversely, when Samantha disappears at various points in the film, Twombly’s solitude exceeds that of a man simply standing by himself. In Phoenix’s face we see a wordless grief through which Samantha’s absence is apparent, and through that sense of absence the invisible character takes shape.

Twombly is shaped by the relationship too as he ends his solitude and begins to let other people connect with him again. By the end, Twombly has realized that the ability to form those connections is itself a marvelous thing, regardless of whether or not they end in heartbreak. Samantha herself is not a perfect mate and Twombly’s relationship with her never seems sustainable, but the film treasures their bond no matter how absurd and fleeting it may be. In a world where people can rely on technology to smooth out the complications in their lives, Her argues that something as complicated and ephemeral as love has a place in our lives too, that love is in fact still what makes life worth living.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With Jonze playing down his trademark absurdist humour and opting for a melancholy tone, we are left with a rather sad cautionary tale.”–Simon Weaving, Screenwize (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE VISITOR (1979)

DIRECTED BY: Giulio Paradisi

FEATURING: , Paige Conner, Joanne Nail, , Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford,

Still from The Visitor (1979)

PLOT: Years ago, a cosmic menace known as Sateen escaped his alien captors and wreaked havoc across the stars. The forces of good and their army of birds vanquished him, but not before he reached Earth and impregnated multiple human women. The children born from those couplings would become mutants, telekinetic beings with the power to rule the world encoded in their genes. Much later, the mysterious being known as the Visitor (John Huston) dreams of a towering figure in black trudging across otherworldly sands. The figure turns into a young girl, and through this vision the Visitor realizes that Sateen’s abilities have resurfaced on Earth within eight-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner).

Katy’s hapless mother Barbara (Joanne Nail) recognizes the evil growing inside her daughter as well, as does the cabal controlling Barbara’s boyfriend, Raymond (Lance Henriksen). Seduced by his employers’ promise to fund his pro basketball team, Raymond agrees to impregnate Barbara with a second child in order fulfill their plans for world domination. Will Raymond succeed and help bring the world to its knees, or will Barbara exercise her right to choose (not to be an incubator for mankind’s destruction)?

Also, will the Visitor ever intervene, or will he spend most of his time wandering aimlessly to theme music that is a bit too dramatic and funky for a man who takes forever to walk down a single flight of stairs? And why is Jesus blonde and surrounded by bald children? The answers will surely surprise you, because if nothing else The Visitor is a story that nobody could ever see coming.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One might read a summary of The Visitor’s plot about a possessed little girl and dismiss it as a rip-off of The Exorcist—which it is—but what’s really special about Giulio Paradisi’s film is that it also rips off Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Birds. In a story where the Satan’s origin as an interstellar felon merits only the briefest attention, director Giulio Paridisi combines a range of ideas from across the spectrums of sci-fi, horror, and religion with such inspired fervor that he could almost be accused of originality. Yes, this is a film that steals parts of very recognizable movies and puts them together with the grace of a child forcing LEGO bricks into a jigsaw puzzle, but the uneven hodgepodge born from The Visitor’s plagiarism is utterly unique in its weirdness.

COMMENTS: From an overqualified cast whose presence could’ve only resulted from blackmail to a plot that immediately requires you to accept that Jesus Christ lives in outer space, very little about The Visitor makes sense. As with many of the so-bad-they’re-weird films, though, that incoherency is the source of the film’s charm. To sit down and explain The Visitor, either by rationalizing its production choices or clarifying its plot scene by scene, would reduce it by turning it into something knowable and common rather than the masterpiece of the bizarre that it is.

The best way to describe The Visitor is to instead just recount a few of its many insane twists, all of which are delivered with the abruptness and enthusiasm of someone making it up as he goes along. This is a movie that casts celebrated director John Huston as a second-fiddle messiah known as the Visitor, whose efforts to stop the possessed Katy Collins soon detour into posing as her babysitter and losing to her in a game of Pong. The threat posed by the girl lies in her telekinesis and a murderous pet hawk whose presence and ability to open doors is never questioned, at least until a maid played by Academy Award-winning actress  kills the bird with her bare hands. However, even more dangerous than Katy is the prospect of her mother, Barbara, giving birth to a son. That second child promises to usher in the end of times, but luckily Barbara lives in post-Roe v. Wade America. After getting pregnant she averts the apocalypse with a timely abortion, leaving the Visitor and his conscripted army of pigeons to take care of Katy and save the day once and for all. Of course, one may wonder why the Visitor didn’t simply take care of Katy as soon as he arrived on Earth, but the answer is clear. That would mean denying us a pretty awesome movie.

After leaving the film’s premiere, Huston reportedly walked up to director Giulio Paradisi and said, “You know what, I had no idea we were making that kind of movie. Congratulations.” Therein lies the wonderful essence of The Visitor, an undertaking so strange that even the people making it could not understand it. It veers from one crazed idea to the next without a care in the world. The results are inscrutable, but within that inscrutability lies a kind of magic. Ultimately, it’s a movie that proves that, when you don’t need to justify yourself, anything is possible.

Drafthouse Films is re-releasing The Visitor to theaters through January 2014, with a new DVD release to follow.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…too messy and weird to have hit back in the day but too inventive and accomplished to have been rotting for so long.”–Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice (2013 re-release)

154. VIDEODROME (1983)

“My early drafts tend to get extreme in all kinds of ways: sexually, violently, and just in terms of weirdness. But I have to balance this weirdness against what an audience will accept as reality. Even in the sound mix, when we’re talking about what sort of sound effects we want for the hand moving around inside the stomach slit, for example; we could get really weird and use really loud, slurpy, gurgly effects, but I’m playing it realistically. That is to say, I’m giving it the sound it would really have, which is not much. I’m presenting something that is outrageous and impossible, but I’m trying to convey it realistically.”–David Cronenberg on Videodrome

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Jack Creley, Sonja Smits

PLOT: Searching for the next level of violent and pornographic entertainment, CIVIC-TV president Max Renn discovers a pirate broadcast called “Videodrome” that depicts the torture and killing of nude men and women in an undisclosed location. Renn is thrilled by what he sees as the future of television, a savage show with no plot, characters, or budget, but his interest in in the program becomes more personal than professional as he watches it with radio personality Nikki Brand and develops his own taste for sadomasochism. Meanwhile, Renn explores the origins of “Videodrome” and its connection to media prophet Professor Brian O’Blivion, whose lectures about the relationship between the human mind and televisual media suggest “Videodrome”’s influence over Renn goes much deeper than he realizes.

Still from Videodrome (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • David Cronenberg’s inspiration for Videodrome came from his childhood experiences of watching televisions pick up distant, distorted signals after the local stations had gone off the air. He imagined what it would be like to see something obscene or illegal on the screen, and he wondered whether he would turn away from the sight or keep watching.
  • CityTV, a Toronto-based independent television station that controversially broadcast softcore porn movies late at night in the 1970s, was the inspiration for Videodrome‘s “Civic TV.”
  • Special makeup effects designer Rick Baker began work on Videodrome shortly after winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, the first award ever given in that category. He was awarded for his work on the film An American Werewolf in London.
  • The character of Professor Brian O’Blivion was loosely based on Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory. McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message,” echoes of which can be seen in Videodrome. Cronenberg may have been a student of McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto.
  • Videodrome was a box office bomb, earning only $2 million at theaters (it cost $6 million to make). It has since become a cult film.
  • At the time of this writing Universal Pictures lists a Videodrome remake as “in development.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Videodrome is full of unforgettable scenes, from Max Renn inserting a gun into his stomach to Barry Convex’s death by cancer-inducing bullets, but it is Renn’s sexual encounter with his television that best captures the hallucinatory, philosophical, and disturbingly erotic aspects of the film. After watching footage of Nicki Brand strangling Prof. O’Blivion, Renn is drawn to his television by Brand’s playful but insistent voice, as her lips grow to fill the screen. Soon, Renn is close enough to reach out and touch the device, which throbs and grows veins under his fingers like an engorged organ. Between rasps and sighs, the television says, “I want you, Max,” as Renn caresses its frame, becoming more aggressive and aroused. The screen begins to bulge under Renn’s groping hands as he leans forward, his face disappearing into the screen’s disembodied lips while they slurp and moan in ecstasy. Though Brand initially seduces Renn, by the end the television has become the willing object of his lust. Renn is not a passive observer of the screen, nor is his television a lifeless machine. Rather, Renn’s craving for the television enters the device and animates it, infusing it with so much desire that it is able to desire Renn in return. This giving of life to the mechanical captures Videodrome’s most salient theme, the idea that technology is not separate from humanity but instead represents an expansion upon the human form, a “new flesh” that may either subjugate or liberate us all.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Videodrome[1] is weird from the moment it introduces its titular snuff program, not just because of the violence it depicts but also because of the characters’ casual acceptance of that violence. Renn and Brand’s unreserved fascination with the “Videodrome” broadcast places them in an alternate moral universe, one where murder is simply the next step for television; the viewer is displaced from his or her own ethical reality.

That disorientation only increases as Videodrome takes hold of Renn, inducing horrible visions that further loosen his and the viewer’s grasp of what is real. In those hallucinations, Renn is subjected to brainwashing and disfigurement that warp him on a mental and physical level, shaking the sense of himself that is his most basic link to the real world. In one scene Barry Convex forces a videocassette into the vaginal slit that Renn has grown on his stomach, adding overtones of surrealism and rape to the story. It is an assault on not just the body and the mind but also on reality, an experience that shatters the protagonist and the viewer in a way few other films can match.


Original trailer for Videodrome

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Videodrome, a talk show host asks, “Don’t you feel [violent and sexual] shows contribute to a social climate of Continue reading 154. VIDEODROME (1983)

  1. Videodrome is used in three senses in this essay. When italicized (Videodrome), the word means the movie directed by David Cronenberg. “Videodrome” is placed in quotes to signify the pirate broadcast Renn watches. When not in quotes or italics, Videodrome refers to the abstract entity or idea of the Videodrome. []