All posts by Ryan Aarset

I love movies, I write books, and I make music. checkout soundcloud.com/facedancer for tracks. Google: "Bloody Shaman" or "You Should Leave" by Ryan Aarset, both free e-books (warning: graphic prose!) Come say hi !

366 UNDERGROUND: DELUSION (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Di Nunzio

FEATURING: David Graziano, Jami Tennille, Carlyne Fournier, Irina Peligrad

PLOT:  Frank, an aging widower still mourning the loss of his wife, follows a mysterious woman, ignoring the warnings of fortune tellers and his own intuition.

Still from Delusion (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It lacks extremeness in the weird department, with only some subtle spiritual themes to give the suspense an extra kick.

COMMENTS: Delusion is no ordinary suspense thriller; it’s got its fair share of dreamlike moments. The boldest aspects of its weirdness don’t come directly from the exploration of the supernatural, but rather from the quiet, introspective moments in between them. The contrast between light and dark, good and evil, is aggressive, and this effect gets multiplied up until the climax. Bouncing from polite conversations over the billiards table to moments of terror and shock, Delusion earns some weird-stripes for its tonal bipolarity. It fails to stretch its ideas of loyalty, loss, and redemption enough to exasperate and confound the mind, though. Instead, it snuggles warmly up into the mystery-thriller blanket, and then ends abruptly with some glorious goodies for weird movie lovers to chew on, but not swallow.

Playing wait-and-bait, everything starts off with silky politeness. Reflective death-related dialogue configures itself around lacquered settings in nature, and the sky is frequently grey, silvery and full of mourning. Frank (everyone’s got a depressed Uncle Frank, even McCauley Culkin from Home Alone) and his nephew Tommy drink brews and shoot pool, but Frank spends even more time standing alone next to swaying trees and thinking about his lost wife, Isabella. This period of reflection services the contrasting emotions at the film’s core by offering a portrait of a character’s earnest longing for closure. Frank is a lonely man. It raises the question: how could he resist the temptations of a succubus?

Before the succubus strikes, there comes a fortune teller who tries to convince Frank to think with the head on his shoulders, but that pesky human malady called grief gets in the way and he ignores her. Things get juicy when the lights go dim and Frank’s fortune is told. Amusing vibes come along with the “haunted” feel. There’s even a bit of James Wan-style pop-up house horror to keep the tension ratcheted up. Frank’s hallucinations get hairier; blood leaks out of sewer pipes, and strange apparitions follow him at home and abroad (some with face-paint straight from a flick).

Most fascinating are the peculiarly natural performances that weave through the staunch atmosphere. The actors have a smooth, organic style to their performances that give the movie a low-key vibe of sinister murmurs while it portrays internal rumination. The silences highlight Frank’s internal thoughts, and the white noise of nature (chirping birds, rustling leaves) offers a chance to process the feeling of aloneness that comes with being lost and vulnerable among soul-corrupting threats. Soothing as the warm pleasures of infatuation are, they aren’t enough to save Frank from himself.

Frank deals with, but does not resist, the temptation of the devil, who urges him to “trust your gut, not your head.” Life, he explains, is just moments and experiences, chaos. It’s hard to believe otherwise after watching Frank’s drastic transformation from a caring, reflective, sentimental man into an angry, womanizing, just-got-laid horndog. Sex can turn a man’s life completely around, and Frank is no exception; post-coitus, he does Baywatch-style beach runs and hits the bar for rounds with the boys. The dark side of his sexually-motivated metamorphosis comes during his reproachful trash talking at the end, which raises the question of whether he had a chance for redemption in the first place. There is one bizarrely violent moment in this movie, at the very end, but its cathartic edge can’t be found elsewhere in the picture. Delusion shows us that some men are doomed to die at the hands of what they desire, and the devil is always there to make the offer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s rather labyrinthine in character and takes all the time in the world to let the story unfold while intentionally blurring the line between this world and the next, the lead character’s warped perception and his genuine nightmares – and it plays with all these elements in a way probably most reminiscent of David Lynch without aping his style.”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]search My Trash (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GERMAN ANGST (2015)

DIRECTED BY: , Michal Kosakowski, Andreas Marschall

FEATURING: Lola Gave, Axel Holst, Michael Zenner

PLOT: In Berlin, a young girl who lives alone with her guinea pig commits a vile act of barbarism, a deaf couple is assaulted by racist hooligans, and a man descends into dangerous sexual depravity.

Still from German Angst (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Adroit, repugnant, diverse, and surprisingly psychedelic, German Angst delivers some nasty weirdness, but its potential to earn a place on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made is hampered by inconsistency. The interconnected sections deliver brutal and heady gore/sci-fi combos, but only the final section of this three-part anthology produces the kind of potent, tantalizing content found in true weird contenders.

COMMENTS: Gutten Tag, Herr veirdos! Deutschland’s recent horror export, German Angst, is a powerful example of a radically uninhibited artistic endeavor. Served on three separate but interlocking platters, the third course surpasses the first two by offering genuine, hypnotic suspense to hammer home a message about unrealistic expectations of sexual pleasure. The hodgepodge of violence with brainy, supernatural exposition evokes strange emotions, but the shocks of the first two portions dampen the sociopolitical and spiritual undertones, rendering it an overbearing torture-fest.

Part one, “Final Girl,” directed by Jörg Buttgereit, is a straightforward shocker featuring a young girl (Lola Gave) who castrates her dad with some sheers. The plodding pace is unsettling and is heaviest during the loitering close-ups of feet and nostrils. The news broadcasts about global terrorism, while the girl pouts through her own pre-pubescent dissonance in her room filled with stuffed animals and teen magazines. Implications of telepathic soul-swapping accompany the torturous acts, as evidenced by the presence of a mystery man smoking a cigarette, as well as a guinea pig leg amputation that might have some connection to the defiled patriarch. The indispensable message (perhaps a statement about diminished human empathy) seems intentionally vague, but gets further diluted by the distraction of witnessing a bound-and-gagged man get his junk snipped off.

The focus on a lack of human empathy in the opening segment smoothly translates into the next movie, “Make a Wish” by Michal Kosakowski. In this act, fascist punks terrorize a deaf and mute Polish couple amidst the squalor of dilapidated German architecture. The terrorized victims transform into the aggressors through a kooky Freaky Friday-style soul-swap that occurs with help from a mysterious medallion. Once again, the graphic, hateful violence deliberately prevents it from being truly weird by invoking a sense of indifference about the characters, regardless of its peculiar supernatural twist. The racist savagery of the second piece feels especially trashy and mean, but some odd fun can be found in the cartoonish acting. The malicious stabbings and rage would be strengths in the torture porn genre, but here, presented with an exaggerated sense of nauseating discomfort, they end up dulling the more subtle ideas.  A prime example is the line: “Let’s waste them and grab a pint, yeah?” delivered by of one of the hooligans.  It’s primitive and crass. It’s a shame that more time wasn’t spent exploring the mystical talisman aspect.

Even less restraint is shown in the third and final act, “Alraune,” directed by Andreas Marschall, which features a genuinely intriguing premise involving a privileged photographer who can’t resist the pleasures of a creepy, drug-fueled sex club.  After hitting a bong load of strange herbs, the photographer (Milton Welsh) is blindfolded and experiences complete sexual elation (peep his rising nipple hairs)—the catch being he’s not allowed to see what’s happening. After curiosity gets the best of him, he descends into his own depravity in a truly horrifying way. With the ian suspense, a sprightly dance-club scene, and—just in case you haven’t had your fill—more genital chopping, this third section is a near-perfect example of List-candidate material and has a whopper of a finale that will induce sinister grins from weird movie lovers. The reason why “Alraune” is particularly tolerable in spite of its grossness is similar to the reason why rapper Danny Brown is tolerable in spite of his misogyny; the material is so cleverly absurd that it’s not even offensive.

During the course of German Angst, people’s faces get smashed in with blunt objects, babies are killed, genitals are severed, and a man gets raped by an alien. It’s quite an original horror film with some redemptive angles such as the mystery medallion concept, oddly penetrating guinea pig close-ups, and druggy alien sex-club. Unfortunately, overall these concepts can’t overcome the shocking, nihilistic carnage. It would be wise to consider the movie’s most vital message: don’t do ANY online dating in Europe.  Auf Wiedersehen!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This year, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has dedicated a section of its programme to surrealism, and questioning reality in cinema. The horror anthology German Angst is part of this section, and it’s a valid choice, as each of the three stories in the film deals with possible alternate explanations of a shown reality… [it] mostly works well, both as a set of individual episodes and as a whole film. You will need a tough stomach though, some patience, and possibly a thick skin as well.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TANK GIRL (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Rachel Talalay

FEATURING: Lori Petty, , , Ice-T,

PLOT: Set in the apocalyptic future, an outlandish young punk battles the mega-corporation that controls the world’s water, with a little help, of course, from mutant kangaroos.

Still from Tank Girl (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The peculiar visual palette and oddball characters in Tank Girl don’t stand out from the omnipresent colorful punk aesthetics of its time. Its tonal inconsistency and mildly bizarre violence (along with a manic Lori Petty) can serve as a sort of goofy surreal serenade, but it never ventures far enough from its comic book origins to really sizzle.

COMMENTS: The 1990’s was an interesting, vibrant period for punk culture.  The 1981 Penelope Spheeris documentary The Decline of Western Civilization introduced us to heaps of buzz-cut youngsters sporting thrashed denim and safety pins, their mumbled words scattered due to their adrenaline pumped, amphetamine-fried brains.  Nearly a decade later, after punk had (to some degree) conceded to generic glam/hair metal, Spheeris released part three of Decline, but the kids looked different this time around. Gone were the black and white clothes, the shaved heads. These kids had rainbow spiked hair held up with egg whites, as they snorted neon Slurpees up their noses while their zit-infested faces smothered the camera. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, kids on the fringes of the punk scene were embracing pop sensibilities and dying their hair like Billy Joe from Green Day while they bought Offspring shirts and purple hair dye from Hot Topic. It was an ideal time for a project like the counterculture comic book adaptation Tank Girl to get greenlit. Tank Girl, which shares an aesthetic with other excessively lively and colorful 90’s movies like Batman Forever and Double Dragon, emerged as a mainstream amalgamation of a larger cultural shift that would continue with the punkish neon of movies like The Phantom and SLC Punk. Channeling inspiration from punk rock culture and feminism, Tank Girl soars with excessive frivolity.

Staying close to true punk form, Tank Girl also contains crass humor and some reasonably nihilistic violence.  Like the militant, borderline-psychotic urban youth that got their kicks from cheap speed and beating up poseurs, the titular character (Lori Petty) seems to get off on pain, whether inflicted on herself or others. She chuckles mirthfully after strapping some grenades to a goon’s vest—a combat move that brings to mind a certain Caped Crusader’s mischief in another punk-indebted 90’s film—and responds to a grave threat from Kesslee (villain Malcolm McDowell) with the line “I like pain”. Indeed, Tank Girl snottily defies convention by wearing its B-movie badge with honor.  All the performances seem to sync with the frisky ambiance, the one exception being the nascent Watts as the square Jet Girl, who in a perfect world may have fared better swapping her role Continue reading CAPSULE: TANK GIRL (1995)

CAPSULE: TROLL (1986) & TROLL 2 (1990)

Troll (1986)

DIRECTED BY:  John Carl Buechler

FEATURING:  Noah Hathaway, June Lockhart, Micheal Moriarity, Sonny Bono, Phil Fondacaro, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

PLOT:  Trolls invade the human realm and turn people into food (and baby trolls).

Still from Troll (1986)

Troll 2 (1990)

DIRECTED BY:  Claudio Fragasso

FEATURING:  Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Robert Ormsby, Deborah Reed

PLOT: A family vacations in a town full of humans disguised as “trolls.”

Still from Troll 2 (1990)

WHY NEITHER MOVIE SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The roots of these strange fantasy worlds don’t dig deep enough to be seriously affecting. The corniness is shallow, and the oddness feels contrived, lazy even.

COMMENTS: Picture a grandfather named Seth.  He confers with others, predominantly family members, emphasizing the existence of goblins. He says they are evil, impudent creatures that revel in torment, then proclaims that goblin blood is green, the color of sap. Somewhere in this parallel universe organic tentacles erupt from the ground and unsightly trolls sprout from organic pods. Multi-hued backdrops dribble with green, mossy earth while peculiar teenage characters experience transcendentally vacant confrontations. In this world, at least one pre-pubescent teen chokes on popcorn during a hot fantasy while trolls hide in his closet. All of these happenings are punctuated by strange flashes of slimy gore in the world of Troll and its sequel, Troll 2.

Eons of insomnia can be obtained attempting to decipher the enigmatic qualitative properties of Troll and Troll 2. Most of what’s on screen in both films seems like a vague attempt to conjure horror and suspense, but it’s all blatantly artificial. Chains of inconsequential science fiction and fantasy ideas are glued together with sticky green goblin slime. It’s assumed that some ironic entertainment value can be siphoned from the bizarre haphazardness, but the darker elements (e.g. the exploding heads in Troll, people being turned into plants and then masticated in Troll 2) indicate a tone of cynicism surrounding the offbeat exchanges. Thus, despite their puppet and slime fetishes, these movies are not really suitable for kids to enjoy. On the contrary, it would be quite unfortunate for an unsuspecting child to see either one of the Troll movies. With little understanding of life, witnessing the queer squabbles, blundering cheeseball romances, and mini-monsters coveting veggie-morphed organs could cause permanent psychological impairment. (It would also be not be constructive for a youngster to watch Troll 2 and get the idea that it’s OK to urinate on the family dinner table).

Examining Troll and Troll 2 as horror appropriation pieces with villains that contort traditional fantasy creatures, the streamlined awkwardness is overwhelmingly grotesque. Loopy symphonies are performed by homicidal puppets with a skew-whiff gawkiness. Unlike other weirdo B-movie monster flicks of the late Eighties, like Bad Taste or Society, the narrative enjoyment never approaches transcendence, nor does it dally with the chaotic fun of cornball monster movies of its time (such as Critters). Rather, the fun gets lost in boredom and confusion while the camera moves from one set piece to the next, while side characters explode with green slime that was most likely borrowed from Nickelodeon Studios before they went prime time. It’s not difficult to imagine both films as extended, graphic episodes of the 90s children’s TV series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” While the woozy plots focus on property conflicts between parallel dimensions, the camera gives a smidgen of solace in its visual homogeneity with its whorls of evanescent greens and browns. The most enduring aspects of the Troll universe come from its vivid color palette and imaginative set pieces.

The goblins (not trolls) of Troll 2 exist within the same logic-deprived chaos as the first film. They kill for pleasure perhaps, but more for the warm green globs of organic flesh that fill their bellies. Issuing the same gruff, nasally bark while performing all tasks, the “trolls” have the power to turn people into plants and the strength to bend steel barrel shotguns, the shells of which they are immune to. The accord between the troll and human world is like a massive, perverted phase shift. Somehow, none of this brain candy prevents the viewing of Troll and Troll 2 from being a generally dull experience.

The repetitive musical score coupled with the amateur acting will, at its best and most cheesy moments, bring to mind the lack of awareness of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, but the strength of Troll  and its sequel as amusing cult films lie more in the lurid sci-fi and fantasy aspects of their productions. In Troll‘s first troll attack, a partier gets zapped into a lush array of green foliage, with a splatter effect that uses green slime in place of blood. Scenes like this are interspersed with arbitrary, half-baked filler dialogue, which can be mind-numbingly dull. In the first film, relief is found with the introduction of an anachronistically-dressed diva with a talking head for a desk lamp. Her role leads to surreal insanity. Another amusing scene in Troll involves a character named Harry Potter Sr. (no kidding) rocking out in his living room, with dance moves that may have inspired those in Dogtooth.

The total freedom of expression on display is liberating.  At a glance, both Troll and Troll 2 can resemble grisly Muppets’ films or B-movie cousins of Labyrinth, but the scene in Troll where baby goblins emerge from animatronic green monsters best describes what the vibe is like throughout both films. Slimy, graphic, and morosely odd, Troll and Troll 2 possess enough surface qualities to be labeled as terribly bizarre, but there’s not enough magic, passion, or unusual ideas behind the bad acting and green slime to rise above the multitude of B-movies that aspire to be on The List.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a predictable, dim-witted premise executed for the most part with surprising style.“–Variety on Troll (contemporaneous)

the kind of cinematic experience that must be experienced firsthand. No description of it can quite contain its misguided ludicrousness or the way its infinite and varied sins against the traits of good cinema combine to produce one of the most uproarious unintentional comedies ever made.”–James Kendrick, Q Network (DVD)

CAPSULE: EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Todd Field

PLOT: An upscale married couple struggles with the temptations of infidelity in modern Greenwich Village, leading the husband to become enmeshed in a secret sex cult.

Still from Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from the creepy centerpiece involving an orgy of masked figures in cloaks, nothing weird happens. Eyes Wide Shut is a serious, deliberate psychological study with some interesting political undertones about power.

COMMENTS: Everyone loves a good sex party, especially when there are masks involved. You can role play, burn incense, and even participate in pagan rituals without worrying about being ratted out. In Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman, playing the melancholic wife Alice Harford, kicks everything off, posing to show off her pump-raised buttocks, and what follows is an odyssey about power and lust. The tragedy is that this film, Kubrick’s final—starring everyone’s favorite Scientologist and his then real life spouse—has been repeatedly reduced to some kind of vague warning about the dangers of an unchecked elite society (Illuminati, etc.), especially since the juiciest segments of the movie come from interpersonal struggle and subsequent identity distortion. These characters terminally deceive themselves and others. Cruise completely owns his role as the terribly charming but ultimately insecure professional Bill Harford, reminding us why we tolerate his wacky off-screen cult endeavors. Offering a multilayered performance with incredible range, restraint and subtlety, he provokes inquisition into his on-screen psyche. Kubrick is the master auteur he’s always been, while Kidman makes everyone horny, forming a powerful trifecta.

Judicious attention is given to high society, people with power and influence, to how they stew in immorality and the instability of their relationships. Kidman displays aggressive coquetry by teasing a suave ballroom gigolo, while at the opposite end of the party Cruise has two women swooning over him. This is a muddy affair hiding behind a façade of elegance and sophistication. We imagine all of the private lives of the patrons here have the same debased, amoral existence, rooted in treachery and egocentrism. Detachment is prevalent, indicative of wealthy people so confident in their endless supply of bailouts that there’s literally nothing they can’t get away with, nothing that can’t be covered up.

Like any good doctor, Bill Harford enjoys playing God. He’s a man with pride and confidence in his professional demeanor, infinite charm spiraling outwards from an desire to dominate others with his own compassion and experience. “Doctors are so…knowledgeable,” says a flirty party gal to Bill. When the camera closes in on Alice’s beautiful behind once again, the question remains: is it good enough Continue reading CAPSULE: EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

LIST CANDIDATE: WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

DIRECTOR

FEATURING: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaidô, , Hiroki Hasegawa, , Gen Hoshino

PLOT:  A renegade amateur filmmaking crew encounters Yakuza mayhem and exploits it for cinematic value.

Stil from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  There’s some veritable, unambiguous oddness here—a buffet of sorts. The absurdity, of the cartoonish, chaotic variety, comes in the form of sweeping gesticulations of jokey but sumptuous violence and sardonic romanticism.

COMMENTS:  Singing kids on television ads give us a chuckle, but maybe there are some creative minds in the world, busy talking about movies, possibly having a laugh from time to time. Introducing: “the Fuck Bombers,” a Cecil B. Demented-type of film crew hell bent on the art form as its own explicit end. They value DIY ethics, dedication, and sacrifice for the greater artistic good.  Just keep going and you will be cool, lead director Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) implies while shooting lifelong stunt actor and Bruce Lee aficionado Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi) during an opening street fight sequence. Hirata says he’ll die for movies, but what if he was faced with that ultimate sacrifice in real life, cameras rolling?  Enter roller-skating Miki, king of dolly shots, and his partner in crime Tanigawa, a handheld camera expect, to accomplish Hirata’s filmic needs. After a prayer to the movie gods, it’s time for action.

Now there’s that asininely charming ad for teeth-brushing that keeps coming up; gnashing, gnarling, smiles wide. Everyone knows the song because it’s sung by little Mitsuko Muto, whose dad (Boss Muto) is now in a feud with Ikegami’s Yakuza over an attempted bloodletting, ending with a surprise retaliation from Muto’s crazed wife Shizue. Blood squirts in gallons onto the faces of onlookers.  Hirata looks through the camera:  “It’s just like a movie. Really? Is it cool?” Ikegami sees Mistuko in a living room full of blood, let by Shizue’s hand, and he asks for her autograph while wounded on the ground, but she has no sympathy. Meanwhile, Shizue yells at the presiding officer now holding her in custody over her murderous rampage, infuriated over the possibility that her daughter’s acting future might be halted.

Boss Muto’s plan for his wife’s release involves making the “greatest movie of all time,” starring his daughter Mistuko. It’s kimonos for all once Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) snaps to it and readies for the final blows coming from his nemesis Boss Muto. Meanwhile, the Bombers release “The Blood of the Wolves,” an amateur samurai movie, and are inspired by an aging 35mm projectionist. Muto, the pin-striped, gold chained Yakuza boss, is now at war with Ikegami, whose obsession with Mitsuko has now taken odd ends, as she’s on the run with naïve Koji as he pretends to be her boyfriend for the day. More strife with the Bombers comes when action stars clash with visionary directors, but Sasaki in his yellow jump suit finds redemption in his ultimate performance, a bloody Yakuza battle filmed by Hirata and Koji. The latter humorously projectile vomits (with excessive force, mind you). A script sent by the movie gods saves him from yakuza henchmen and their intensive beatings. “Make it 4 HMI screens,” says Koji to his new film crew, ordered by Muto himself to commemorate his history as a yakuza. The action is the real life battle between gangs, choreographed by Hirata, starring Mitsuko, Sasaki, and others.  “Life’s more fun on the shady side,” says Hirata.

There’s a bounty of violence and gore . Hirata insists to an excited Muto that, to honor Japanese culture, only swords should be used during fight scenes.  “Only swords?  How can I say no?” responds an eager Muto. The limitation is called off in the heat of battle when guns blaze– but why the hell not in this suggestively carnal environment? Just do it now, because there’s no time for a script.  And cut, reset, now action! At some point Koji is inebriated, and limbs are flying everywhere. Mitsuko whispers, in another line of what has become an ongoing series of tender moments during chaotic killings, “if I met someone I love, maybe acting wouldn’t be important to me.” The moments of gore-filled hilarity compare to an Evil Dead movie. Is this 13 Assassins with movie gods, yakuza, and meta-fanatical, filmic martyrdom?

The intimacy is broken up by cops, but there are some twists. Hirata ends up on the run, and in one of the most indelible scenes he melts into pure meta-fictional glory. With the eagerness of a young mind picking up a camera for the first time, Sono’s Hell is a fast-paced, bloody, and humorous romp through the deranged world of the filmmaker as an artist. Just pick up the camera and do it, seems to be the message.

LIST CANDIDATE: CUBE (1997)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint,

PLOT: Seven strangers awake in a cubical maze filled with deadly traps and work to find a way out.

Still from Cube (1997)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: Cube is classic cult sci-fi/horror.  It’s intriguing, captivating, and smart, but follows a linear narrative and has characters with logical motivations. Some serious weirdness can be found in its ugly, recycled visuals (only two cubical rooms were built and used for the set design) and brooding  ambient soundtrack, but it’s all coherent enough to stand as a firmly established vision of the bleakness of modern life. It has “weird” ambitions, but ultimately finds itself in the category of intense sci-fi, not transcendental strangeness.

COMMENTS: Cube, much to its own advantage, is quite minimalist.  The setting of the film is a series of cubical rooms with distinctively ugly color palettes. Decorated with different kinds of high-tech architectural patterns and shapes, the rooms evoke conceptual mathematics, serving as a sort of pastiche of NASA blueprints or military designs. The characters are dressed identically, have no memory of how they got in the cube, and each possesses some kind of useful skill. There is a math student, a cop, a medical professional, an escape artist, an exterior designer, and an autistic young man with a penchant for solving complicated arithmetic problems in his head. The opening scene shows a nameless character who steps into a room only to meet his ill fate with a swift slice and dice, painting the floor in symmetrical pieces of his bloody corpse before we see the film’s title shot over a background of blinding white light.

The danger lurking ahead is now obvious and imminent: some of the rooms have traps, and others do not. The suspense is heightened by the ignorance of the characters; we only know as much as they do, almost nothing at all. Apparently kidnapped and held against their will, they all work together to escape the cube, only to find that their biggest threat to one another is each other. One would probably wonder how such a simple idea could ever look so cool, but the atmosphere of the movie drives it forward, forcing us to develop our own ideas about what the cube is and why it was made.

An attempt at something of an explanation starts to develop around the mid-point, and here frustration rears its ugly head. (It may also have been slightly irresponsible to cast Maurice Dean Wint as Quentin, seeing that he is the only actor in the movie that is black and he is shown to be significantly more violent and unhinged than the others). Political and personal gripes aside, the delight in watching these characters hopelessly delve into their own survival emulates from the paranoia that comes from their ignorance. Plus, the gory deaths don’t hamper the entertainment value one bit. Face melting acid traps, wires that cut through skin and bone, sound-activated blades—this particular trap is the movie’s riveting and suspenseful center piece—and an anger-prone cop (a relevant touch in lieu of recent national tragedies) provide ample intensity, violence, and a sinister atmosphere that make Cube a force to be reckoned with. Its near immediate elevation to cult status was no surprise, as DVD sales and rentals (remember rentals?) were much higher than usual for a low budget Canadian movie with a cast of unknowns.

Aside from the suspense rooted in escaping bloody doom, there is a plethora of mind candy along the way, most of it rooted in mathematics and philosophy. Rooms are numbered in sequenced patterns of exponents of prime numbers, and while the math wizard works toward finding a way past the traps, she makes chicken scratches in the shiny metal doors of the cubes using buttons off her shirt. It’s here when the audience is treated to a creepy musical palette of hushed whispers and echoing warped synthesizers, as they fall further down into a bleak realm of chaotic peril. Whenever they make progress towards finding a way out, new problems arise, whether it is a miscalculation or anger and frustration stemming from the ever-growing exhaustion of the subjects. Cube twists and turns through suspicions and possible explanations. Did aliens build the cube, or was it the government? Is there a way out or are they all supposed to die? All of it is punctuated by violent gore, a catharsis for life’s impending ambiguities.

Symbolically, life inside the Cube is no different than life outside of it, full of unanswered questions, meaningless death, and a kind of endless striving towards a future that might not ever happen. Some of its more generic ideas stem from the dangers of a military-industrial complex, human purpose, and the endless grind of working towards nothing/death. There is nihilism, hope, confusion, betrayal and even compassion to be found inside of the cube, evidenced by the varying attitudes and behaviors of the poor souls who are trapped inside.  One particularly powerful component of the intended symbolic gesture comes from the character Worth (David Hewlett) when he is reluctant to leave the cube. “What is out there?” inquires Leaven (Nicole de Boer). There is an intense close up of a whiteout, the apparent exit, as he replies: “Boundless human stupidity.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Inside the cube, the lack of information, the strange Jack Kirbyesque details on the walls and the absence of any outside world makes the environment of the film timeless and suitably, subtly existential.”–Alex Fitch, Electric Sheep (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tona,” who said it was “weird for the ambiguity, the paranoic atmosphere.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.

Still from Existenz (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror.  Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.

COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?”  If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next.  eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix.  It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.

From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game.  During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh.  As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.

Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all.  The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility.  Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself.  The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.

eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms.  It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “alex.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: NYMPHOMANIAC, VOLUME I & II (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  , , , ,

PLOT: A sex addict tells the story of her troubled life to an older man as he tends wounds left from a violent assault.

Still from Nymphomaniac (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although horrific, there is nothing here that stretches too far beyond the extremes of real-life addiction. It’s shocking, even grotesque, but not all that strange.

COMMENTS: Despite his reputation for pushing boundaries and drawing attention, I often found myself wondering what all the fuss was over the movies made by Lars Von Trier. I felt that he too often focused on raw, sometimes unbearable footage—female genital mutilation just isn’t all that fun for me to watch on screen—to get the desired effect from audiences, and that his use of weighty concepts (the death penalty, Christ allegories) to balance shock with substance was contrived. It seemed cheap to me to play on the emotions of a person simply for the sake of effect or to make the movie more memorable. This particular perception of Von Trier as an artist changed for me after watching Nymphomaniac, and I began to become more engaged with his stylistic techniques, as well as become fascinated by his (and the casts and crews that he works with) sheer bravery. I suddenly became hooked on this man’s work and his unusual talent for getting his audience to connect with characters in his films. I paid closer attention to the psychological terrorism of Antichrist and got in touch with why Von Trier chooses to be so shamelessly relentless: for sheer effectiveness I believe. He respects us by refusing to censor the human experience in any way.

Nymphomaniac is Von Trier’s longest (considering parts I and II as the same movie), most polished, brutal, and memorable film to date. I would rank it among the all-time epically foul sex sagas. It really is a horror film that presents itself in the form of an intense relationship-based drama. The horrifying elements of the film stay true to form for a von Trier outing; they are deeply psychological. Instead of gasping at Joe’s (the protagonist, played by Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) lack of self-control (which is depicted in fully pornographic sex scenes of varying intensity), the audience is rather pulled towards terror by witnessing the sheer destruction that comes forth from the actions committed by all of the film’s characters. It is a labyrinth of hurt. A noteworthy example would be when Joe inadvertently convinces a man to leave his wife (played by a nearly unrecognizable Uma Thurman) and kids to come live with her. What follows is a mental breakdown by the Mrs. in front of her young children, all while Joe stares indifferently at the whole scene, totally unaffected and in the darkness of the void of addiction. It’s disturbing to watch.

The entire movie unfolds as a single conversation held between an older, seemingly asexual man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard, in his best performance yet) and Joe. We then watch and listen to the story of Joe’s life as an active sexual addict, including the horrors of her decisions and the abuse that circles through and around her. Skarsgard’s Seligman gives the movie an academic, non-sexual grounding that counters the brutality on display. He is nearly a saint to her throughout the film, a kind of hope that exists in the murk of brutality. We watch him show compassion and understanding while he comforts her, never judging, frequently quite forthcoming and innocently curious. The dynamic development and conclusion of this central relationship is one of the most interesting (and surprising) parts of the film, serving as a kind of base from which Joe’s story can grow its ugly, gnarling branches.

The depraved behavior that we see these characters engage in is ghastly and cruel, but it’s all so beautifully shot and presented that the pornographic elements become more like a reflection of reality than a means of cheaply shocking viewers. It all remains fairly wacky and demented, with a gradual progression into complete despair that left this reviewer dumbfounded. It is perhaps too grounded in reality, too obsessed with raw humanity to be considered “weird,” but it in no way lacks edge. It’s filled to the brim with raw, brutal violence, actual porn, and consistently amoral characters. It is often mean-spirited, in a comic way. Von Trier is still a prankster, and he pulls the rug out from under us more than once here. In some ways, Nymphomaniac is like a four-hour long, beautifully disgusting joke. It’s a sexy void. I have only seen it once, and I don’t really plan on watching it again, but I’m absolutely positive I will never forget it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s very weird, given, but it’s also effective.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (Vol. II, contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: BORGMAN (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Sara H. Ditlevsen

PLOT:  A dangerous group of criminals are lead by a strangely charismatic man named Camiel Borgman, who terrorizes a family after being let into their home.

Still from Borgman (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Dumping dead bodies in a lake and taking a dip right after is weird, but what about strange underground criminals who perform dark ballets on other people’s property just for their own amusement?

COMMENTS: With a keen focus on power and class, Borgman unravels the culture behind malignant societal ills by dissecting its basic unit (the family), citing examples such as sexism, classism, and a general need to be better off than one’s neighbor.  Although he is compared to in numerous reviews, Borgman director Alex Van Warmerdam seems to be less patient, more starkly manical. This makes Borgman full of surprises from start to finish. It’s cohesive and bursting with ideas. It’s fair to say the film’s cerebral aspect alone is completely riveting and preposterously strange, and its characters have a drastic range in their behavior. They can be repulsive, but then they are cool and funny. The maliciousness of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is casual, but it’s not surprising that both he and his companions Ludwig and Pascal (Alex van Warmerdam and Tom Dewispelaere respectively) are given the narrative leverage to pull some laughs while scaring us.

Stine, played by Sara H. Ditlevsen is absolutely beautiful, and Hadewych Minis’ Marina is truly mesmerizing. The way the two female leads cater to the men in the story is erotic but dangerous; we watch as it leads to cruelty. There is a strong and intentionally obvious message concerning the guilt of having too much, of looking out upon society and realizing that you are simply better off than most people, but it’s just an aside. Borgman deals mostly with the eradication of the family unit, a demonstration of how abuse leads to distance and betrayal. Richard (Jeroen Perceval) heads the family and he is a racist misogynist if there ever was one. We watch as his own demons consume him in various forms. There is a plentitude of weird creepiness concerning this family and their interaction with Camiel Borgman and his unusually loyal posse, and it makes for a compelling and mystical viewing experience.

Borgman is incredibly dreamy, and a feeling of almost whimsical, drifting terror is delivered in master strokes. It is relentless. Strangely enough, it does not give the impression that it would make a great midnight movie, or even a good cult film, but that doesn’t stop its strangeness from being potent and penetrating. While seeming to borrow heavily from major independent thrillers like Timecrimes, Funny Games and perhaps even No Country for Old Men (the meticulous and calm way Borgman is shown scraping poisonous resin across a serving bowl), Borgman maintains a freshness that is disturbing, dark, cerebral and exhilarating. It has a chilly and dark atmosphere. The heaviness of small details psychically nestle in your brain just enough to hint at the true malice being shown. The result is magnificent anxiety. Bijvoet’s Borgman is entrancing both because of his extraordinary power over people and his relentless brutality for the sake of an unidentified gain. Only hints are given at the intention behind his and malice, so generalized that it’s ultimately up to the viewer to determine what the true meaning is, if any at all. Bijvoet’s performance has range. He portrays coldness, creepiness, tenderness, and brutality all with equalized vigor. He is calm quiet, powerful, and definitely represents larger concepts.

As for the most important aspect of Borgman to us—its weirdness—the actions of the characters are so ridiculous (and sometimes insidious) that the whole thing ends up being slightly surreal. It is also very comical. The label given by critics for this movie as a straight dark comedy is acceptable here, but there is much more to it than that. The end will have most people scratching their heads, in a good way; it gives the movie great replay value, and it’s almost terrifying in its creepiness. I didn’t much enjoy Dogtooth, the domestic satire most associated with this movie; I found Borgman to be much more exciting in its ability to borrow from so many other movies but still be original. In the end, it was the small details, the humor, the subtlety in performance and image that combined to make Borgman lasting, dark, and really, really weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Filled with surreal touches and shocking scenes of black humor, Borgman steams ahead with the power and inevitability of a nightmare.”–Tirdad Derakhshani, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)