All posts by Shane Wilson

“WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, SEASON 11

For better or worse, the snark-meisters at “ are responsible for blowing the dust off a lot of truly unusual motion pictures, exposing these cinematic curiosities to a far greater and (relatively) more mainstream audience than they ever accrued in their unheckled forms. Only the most dedicated and tolerant moviegoers would have even heard of the legendary trainwreck that is Manos: The Hands of Fate had it not been immortalized at the peak of MST3K’s popularity, and a handful of the show’s other targets—Robot Monster, The Beast of Yucca Flats, Horrors of Spider Islandhave also been honored with inclusion on this website’s eponymous list. (The show’s own movie adaptation was not similarly recognized). After ten seasons of plumbing the depths of movie misses, the last new episode was transmitted in 1999, and while audiences have had other sources for high-octane movie riffing (including efforts from the show’s stars), the special combination of comic commentary and curated curiosities provided by the original series has been unavailable.

Still from Mystery Science Theater 3000 Season 11

Thanks to one of the biggest Kickstarter campaigns ever undertaken, that void has now been filled. Show creator Joel Hodgson has shepherded the show back onto the small screen (and the very, very small screen, as the show is available for binge-watching courtesy of Netflix), with a new cast of riffers, some higher-grade mad scientists, some even higher-grade cameo appearances, and a few tweaks to the host segment formula. It’s all in service, though, of the same basic low-fi approach to movie-watching: man and robots watch bad movie, man and robots make fun of said movie.

I don’t want to use this space to review the show itself (full disclosure: I’m an acquaintance of the actress who voices Gypsy and two Bonehead assistants in this iteration), except to say that it accomplishes the most critical and challenging task: it feels like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Instead, I’d like to recap the films selected to re-christen the Satellite of Love and consider their place within the canon of Weirdness.

Right out of the gate, the producers hit upon a solid formula: monster movies from other lands. The show’s original run set a high standard for making fun of giant monsters with five Gamera movies on the bill. The new season’s debut, Reptilicus (1961), riffs upon an especially funny logline: a giant lizard attacks Denmark. The notion of a ridiculous monster terrorizing the land of Hans Christian Andersen is so delightfully absurd that it inspires the instant-classic host singspiel, “Every Country Has a Monster.” There is much to enjoy, including poorly assembled rear-projection monster attacks, outstandingly negligent scientists, and interminable “comedy” from Danish clown Dirch Passer. It’s as endearing as you would expect a continental kaiju to be, and a solid hit right out of the box.

Monsters figure large this season, and one of the best is the low-rent Bigfoot at the center of Cry Wilderness (1987). Somehow, the legendary Sasquatch has taken off its gloves (literally) and befriended an obnoxious grade-schooler, and together they romp through a disconnected assembly of attractive California forest locales while befriending a number of wild creatures who should really be left alone. Continue reading “WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, SEASON 11

283. THE TINGLER (1959)

“Now please don’t fool with that stuff alone, Warren, it can produce some pretty weird effects.”—Lab assistant warning Vincent Price against taking LSD in The Tingler

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Castle

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts

PLOT: Scruple-challenged scientist Dr. Warren Chapin discovers that a creature called “the Tingler” lives within the human spine. This creature grows when the host experiences fear, and shrinks when they scream. When an extracted Tingler escapes, Chapin and his assistant must race to re-capture the beast before it unleashes its terror—maybe right here inside this very movie theater!

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director/producer Castle, master of publicity-grabbing gimmicks, applied several such techniques to The Tingler, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater, and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture. The most notorious gimmick in his oeuvre, however, was undoubtedly “Percepto.” For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric airplane de-icing engines. At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting (or eagerly-hoping) viewers with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • Although best known for his B-movies, Castle’s resume is not exclusively low-budget shockers. He was an as assistant director on The Lady from Shanghai, and produced ‘s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. (He has a cameo as a man wanting to use Mia Farrow’s phone booth.)
  • Price’s self-administered LSD experience was reportedly the first ever cinematic acid trip. Castle was so eager to clue in the audience to what was going on that he printed the name of the scientific monograph Price is reading on the back of the volume.
  • Directors and John Waters included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for the Sight and Sound 2002 poll of the greatest films of all time.
  • Shane Wilson’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even without the electrified seats, The Tingler is an odd little enterprise. Between the confident pseudoscientific explanations, the wildly shifting tone, and the utter commitment to the absurd and goofily executed premise, it’s a strange and silly cinematic experience. But “Percepto” ups the ante considerably. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons and to play upon their emotions, The Tingler was now actively threatening the audience with physical harm. By bringing the actual audience inside the film, Castle’s gimmick becomes a means to shatter the fourth wall completely, paving the way for the interactive experiences viewers treasure so much now.


Original trailer for The Tingler

COMMENTS: Let’s not kid ourselves. The Tingler is very silly. Consider that the entire premise of the film is based on literalizing the Continue reading 283. THE TINGLER (1959)

366 UNDERGROUND: ROAD TO THE WELL (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Jon Cvack

FEATURING: Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, Marshall R. Teague, Rosalie McIntire

PLOT: To avoid being implicated in a murder, a browbeaten white-collar drone and his drifter friend take a trip to dispose of the body, only to find obstacles and growing suspicions at every turn.

Still from Road to the Well (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Road to the Well is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced neo-noir thriller. It falls firmly in the tradition of wronged men trying to get out from under a dangerous situation, and while a couple scenes are tinged with oddness, in every important respect the film is not at all weird.

COMMENTS: The deck is already stacked for this movie by throwing out the word “noir.” Noir is a handy label for a subset of a subset: the kind of thriller where morals are muddled and the protagonist gets what’s coming to him just as surely as the villain. In its classic form, black-and-white photography is augmented with an ominous soundtrack, hard-bitten dialogue, and high-contrast shadows, all contributing to a sense that our hero is trapped in a universe from which escape seems nigh impossible.

If there’s a more loaded phrase than “noir” in the annals of film criticism, it would probably be “neo-noir.” All genres mature, and the dismissal of the strictures of the Production Code changed the nature of noir. No longer could you be sure that characters would invariably pay for their mistakes. Color allowed filmmakers to add new signifiers of good and evil to their palette. Motivations became more complex, the lines between good and bad muddier, and the very concept of redemption was sometimes rejected outright. Neo-noir acknowledged the themes of its progenitor, but expanded their boundaries, to the point where critic Robert Arnett would lament, “Any film featuring a detective or a crime qualifies.”

Having said all that, writer/director Jon Cvack’s debut film checks all the boxes for neo-noir. When desk jockey Frank (Fuller) finds himself implicated in the brutal murder of a woman he just met, it’s a wrong-man scenario suitable for Hitchcock, and his questionable decision to try and cover up the crime sits comfortably in the pantheon of noir-hero bad ideas. The interesting variant here is the presence of a friend, itinerant goof-off Jack (Parker), who readily agrees to lend a hand by facilitating the disposal of the woman’s body. The result is a road movie in which truth and comeuppance always seem to be just a couple car-lengths behind.

There’s a feel of thrillers of a more recent vintage, such as Blood Simple or A Simple Plan. But Cvack has none of the ‘ absurdist view of life; even the ridiculous sight of Frank and Jack trying to haul the dead girl up the stairs in a suitcase is played completely straight. All the troublesome elements are explored: cleaning up blood, covering up the smell, finding a suitable burial site… they’re all here. Most significantly, of course, are the people you meet along the way, who seem to sense guilt coming from a mile away.

Those interesting people turn out to be part of the problem with the movie. Consider, for example, the film’s most potent scene, a tense encounter with a retired military chaplain whose intimidation has the force of morality, anger, and a secret agenda behind it. He’s in the movie for somewhere around 10 minutes, but his presence and impact dwarf that of the two leads. Compare that with Frank, ostensibly our hero but in actuality a complete cipher. Although he makes choices that lead down the story’s dangerous path, they are invariably so passive that it becomes far too easy to blame others, especially Jack. Frank is utterly lacking in agency, which is apt for his ultimate fate, but problematic when assessing the momentous choice he is called upon to make. Even under these most extreme circumstances, Frank struggles to establish a presence for himself , and ends up being a vacuum in his own story.

It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of suspense about the nature of Frank’s predicament. We are given critical information at the start of the film, and while we do not understand its meaning out of context, it creates an expectation that hangs over the proceedings. When we finally get the piece of information that ties it all together, it qualifies less as a twist than as validation of common sense.

Road to the Well looks spectacular, and the filmmakers know it; cinematographer Tim Davis is the first name credited after Cvack. Also contributing is the evocative, pizzicato-laced score of composer Conor Jones, who adds layers of foreboding and menace to scenes which don’t really go anywhere on their own. The production quality of the movie far exceeds its sub-six-figure budget, and Cvack and his collaborators deserve a look from big-time producers looking for great moviemaking talent. But his calling card is strangely uninvolving, mirroring Frank’s journey: a beautiful, tension-filled trip to another dead-end job.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cvack’s screenplay and direction is terrific in its ability to create mood, develop a sense of dread, and keep the performances and individual scenes consistently bizarre and uneasy. Even when all sense of logic sometimes abandons the film – certain sections feel disjointed or seem to be missing important pieces of information – the dedication to tone keeps the story from spinning out of control. …It works, and works well, again blending elements of the Coen Brothers with a Lynchian sense of off kilter madness.” — Larry Taylor, Monkeys Fighting Robots

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Will Vinton

FEATURING: James Whitmore (voice)

PLOT: The acclaimed author, with three of his most famous characters in tow, recounts a few of his famous tales while racing in a fantastical airship to meet up with Halley’s Comet.

Still fromThe Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The unique properties of the Claymation stop-motion technique give Mark Twain a distinctive look and feel, and in key moments, the film manages to capture the subject’s complex inner voice better than almost any adaptation of his work. But the attempt to graft an exploration of the many facets of the personality of Samuel Clemens onto what is clearly meant to be a delightful children’s entertainment results in a metaphysical mishmash that’s more messy than it is mindbending. There’s not really anything like The Adventures of Mark Twain, which actually makes it harder to peg for the purposes of this project; the pendulum swings mightily between bafflement at what they were trying to do and amazement at what they did.

COMMENTS: Several years ago, a video started making the rounds across the interwebs. It bore the title, “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV,” and featured a strange headless creature with a mask instead of a face who makes a small village of tiny, happy, featureless people for the amusement of three children, and then proceeds to destroy said village in a flourish of calamity and misery.

Of course, the cartoon was not “banned from TV”, and even without attribution, a keen eye would recognize the unique plasticine style as that of animation pioneer Will Vinton. Best-known for his commercial work (most prominently the California Raisins), Vinton gained notoriety for an aggressively detailed approach to stop-motion animation. In contrast to, say, the Aardman house style, which is consistently smooth and a little stodgy, Vinton got deep into the craggy details, carving every deep wrinkle and wild strand of hair in thick, fingerprint-impressed clay. In addition to advertisements, Vinton’s work landed him sequences in TV shows and movies, music videos, and a series of holiday specials, to say nothing of an Oscar and three more nominations for his short film work. Mark Twain was his only feature-length project, and a curious one it turns out to be.

From the get-go, this is a perplexing tale being told. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—all Twain creations—spot the famous author planning to fly a giant dirigible to the stars in pursuit of Halley’s Comet. (As the film’s epigram reminds us, Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, contemporaneously to one of the comet’s periodic appearances, and the author frequently referenced his expectation that he would “go out” with the comet upon its return.) They have no notion of being characters from Twain’s mind, and he only obliquely references their roles as characters in his novels. Once they are ensconced as part of the crew, he introduces them to some of his other Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: G. J. Echternkamp

FEATURING: Manu Bennett, Marci Miller, Yancy Butler,

PLOT: In a dystopian future, drivers compete in a cross-country race where the competitors score points for speed and vehicular homicide.

Still from Death Race 2050 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being the fifth film to bear the Death Race marque, the 2050 incarnation is a pretty straightforward race picture, with some absurd gore and strident satire glommed on for extra measure.

COMMENTS: The title card identifies this movie properly as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, and when you get to be 90 years old and won an Oscar just for the sheer volume of your output, then you’re damned right you get to throw your name up there. But now that he’s put himself front and center, it’s important to remember that a lot of Roger Corman movies are bad. When we think of filmmakers like , James Cameron, or Ron Howard getting their start in Corman’s low-budget film factory, the context is that they are all talented filmmakers who overcame humble origins. Death Race 2050 does not manage to outshine its pedigree, whether that be the Corman exploitation mill, the shadow of the original Death Race 2000, or the many films from which it liberally borrows. In that sense, it’s a fitting addition to the Corman canon.

Allegedly, Corman instigated the idea after a journalist suggested that his original Death Race had much in common with The Hunger Games. Evidently, he opted to solidify the connection by carrying over as many elements of The Hunger Games as he could legitimately steal, from the bread-and-circuses atmosphere to the preening chief executive to the destitute-man’s Stanley Tucci who emcees the whole affair. But it owes just as much to the rock-stupid future depicted in Idiocracy, to say nothing of the original film, whose beats are carefully replicated here.

Ostensibly the tale of a fallen America’s favorite bloodsport, Death Race 2050 pits five cars against each other in a race across a country that is largely free of people, presumably because they all remain indoors to enjoy the race from their squalid-yet-VR-enabled homes. Given how many of the remaining citizens wind up dead at the hands of the racers, it’s hard to tell whether reality TV is the ultimate killer, or the only thing keeping our descendants alive.

As for the racers themselves, one is a robot car susceptible to brain damage, while two are stereotypes (a black nationalist rap star whose hit song consists almost entirely of the poetic lyrics, “Death Death Kill Kill”, and a fundamentalist Christian televangelist who proudly builds her pulpit on terrorism). That leaves two for our primary showdown: Jed Perfectus, the probably-gay prima donna with a chip on his shoulder who struts around practically naked (he has a spectacular chin, but beyond that is not exactly a flawless specimen), and Frankenstein, the world-weary champion who is pretty much annoyed with everyone. Overseeing all of this is Malcolm McDowell, honing his accumulated phoning-it-in skills with a barely-trying American accent and a floppy hairdo that might remind viewers of another arrogant leader who cons the public and suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

The writers want to have fun with the rampant commercialism that has destroyed the country (the best such joke is this wonderful location card: “Washington, D.C. [formerly Dubai]”), but the humor is paper-thin. For every joke that carries a little weight if you stop to think about it (i.e. the aerosol cheese that’s also a mood stabilizer), twice as many are simplistic (the new American flag replaces the stars with dollar signs), depraved (a passenger literally has sex with the robot car), or low-hanging (fans drink paint-can-sized beverages labeled “Zoda!”). The film is aware of its limitations (a conversation between two women takes place in “The Bechdel Lounge”) but helpless to overcome them. Characters switch sides just because, abandon long-held beliefs just because, and generally do whatever is required to get them to the next jokey part of the country.

But you’re not really watching Death Race 2050 for its Thurberian wit, so who cares as long as there’s some thrills in this Death Race? Which turns out to be an even bigger problem: no one believes for a minute that these cars are going faster than 30 mph, even fewer will imagine that these actors got anywhere near the steering wheel, and most of the carnage consists of bloody entrails being hurled at windshields. When you aim to combine satire and action, and don’t really score on either count, you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment.

Death Race 2050 wants to be a few different movies, but doesn’t really score at any one of them. As a result, it’s never actively bad, but not particularly good, which makes it very disposable as entertainment. Fortunately, there are four other Death Race films you can try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Death Race 2050 is grating and insane … Even more than the original, this flick is a garish cartoon and as such, it will likely isolate audiences looking for the humorless thrills of the previous Death Race series or those just looking for a straight action flick. No, this incarnation of Death Race feels like a smutty app from Hell, rather than a conventional genre film.” — Chris Alexander, ComingSoon.net

366 UNDERGROUND: MARVELOUS MANDY (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Chase Dudley

FEATURING: Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Jonathan Stottmann, Keith Nicholson

PLOT: A lonely single father falls in love with the author of his daughter’s favorite books, only to discover that she may not be all she seems.

Still from Marvelous Mandy (2016)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marvelous Mandy is a straightforward Secret Sociopath thriller. Early misdirection helps create a certain confusion about the kind of movie we’re in for, but once the killing starts, it’s merely a race to each successive murder. Despite brief jaunts into the headspace of the two leads, there’s very little here that’s weird beyond the psychopathy of the killer.

COMMENTS: Before going any further, let’s be clear that this is absolutely loaded with SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I’m giving away everything. With that in mind, let’s start with a fundamental question that Marvelous Mandy raises about horror-slasher-thriller movies.

Do you kill the kid?

The horror genre, perhaps more than any other, requires constant re-invention to maintain freshness in the eyes of its audience. How many ways can you find to yell “boo”? What happens when blood isn’t enough? Do you add in intestines? Where can you go after gore, other than more gore? Can you succeed entirely through twists and misdirections like M. Night Shyamalan, or do you pursue the nobody-gets-out-alive nihilism of an Eli Roth? Each movie must walk a delicate line, between restraint and wild abandon, between growing unease and sudden shock.

So, is killing the kid a step too far, signifying a plotter’s desperation, or possibly even an unsettled mind? Or is it a sign of the filmmaker’s purity of intent, preying on inherent fears, doing whatever is necessary to get a rise out of a jaded audience? The kind of movie you’re dealing with relies very heavily upon how the filmmaker has answered this question. (Speaking personally, I gave up on “CSI” after kids kept turning up on the slab too often, so my tolerance registers pretty low. But I understand the storytelling impulse.)

Marvelous Mandy attempts the difficult dance of being a little bit of both. Screenwriter (and Great Name Hall of Famer) Brentt Slabchuck introduces us to Harvey,  a dedicated dad and wannabe stand-up comic with no chops who is so desperate for love that he makes an embarrassing plea to a way-too-young barista in front of half of Louisville. He then pairs this lovable loser with Mandy, a woman who projects instability from the first frame, a children’s author mysteriously slumming as a bookstore clerk who spurs every man who crosses her path to make some very ill-informed decisions. The film tries to play with suspense by extending Harvey’s ignorance of his danger long past the point where we see his peril, but because we’ve seen Mandy in action (which is not her real name), the only mystery remaining is when he will finally catch up to us, and whether it will be in time to make a difference. Harvey turns out to be a lot sharper than other men, but the die is cast.

Although Marvelous Mandy is a semi-professional production, director Dudley has assembled a game and determined cast. As Harvey, Stottmann is convincing as a man who knows he’s in over his head but unbowed, while Solinger plays Mandy’s madness to the hilt. There are also nice turns in the supporting cast, including Ryley Nicole as Mandy’s delightfully pissy co-worker, and Kenna Hardin, natural as Harvey’s faithful daughter.  But the true standout is Keith Nicholson as a jovial, Stetson-wearing, tea-chugging private eye who does all the due diligence that nobody else manages to accomplish. Arriving in the third act to pursue Harvey’s spot-on suspicions about Mandy, he’s a breath of fresh air, wearing his enthusiasm and his character quirks loudly and proudly.

Dudley himself has some keen directorial instincts. He uses locations well, and he films Mandy’s violent attacks with skillful verisimilitude. Most impressive is a Hitchcockian tracking shot that begins with an attack and continues outside a house while the fight rages on, only catching up to the actors again at the end of the bloody assault.

Marvelous Mandy hints at certain ideas that might have taken the plot into unexplored territory. What would cause a children’s author’s mind to bisect into nurturing and violent halves? Would a man yearning for love still accept if it came with a dark side? What makes one man succumb to the lure of a femme fatale while another resists her deadly charms? Any of these might have lent shading or novelty to a subspecies of the genre—the Fatal Attraction trope—that threatens to become tired and boring. It never quite makes the turn on any of these, though, content instead to offer a woman with a messed-up brain and a drive for murder, and to turn her loose to do her thing.

Because, Mandy? She kills the kid. Turns out to be that kind of movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marvelous Mandy is a darkly enjoyable movie that really doesn’t let on what it’s about until you’re already sucked in to then twist and turn into directions not thought possible…. add to that the film’s colour chart that for the most part feels a bit off and unreal, a directorial effort that stays away from spectacle to give the story space to breathe, and a great cast, and you’ve got yourself a really cool movie!”–Mike Haberfelner, [re] Search My Trash

 

CAPSULE: WHERE’S POPPA? (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Reiner

FEATURING: George Segal, , Trish Van Devere, Ron Liebman

PLOT: An attorney’s life is upended by his abusive, senile old mother, and he casts about in vain for a path that will allow him to find romance without resorting to matricide.

Still from Where's Poppa? (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Where’s Poppa? is outrageous, running head-first into boundaries with glee and a subversive sensibility. But it’s a very calculated enterprise, with rules broken mostly for the satisfaction of breaking them, rather than for any larger artistic vision.

COMMENTS: The prospects for weirdness in Where’s Poppa? are pretty high at the outset. After a lengthy take of George Segal waking up to the mindless drone of a tedious morning radio show, he cleans himself up and calmly dresses in a gorilla suit for the purpose of scaring his mother to death. It doesn’t work, and he leaves her propped up in front of Sesame Street with a breakfast of orange slices and Lucky Charms topped with Dr. Pepper.

George Segal’s hangdog expression and exhausted rage (at one point, he manages to combine a desperate plea with a profane threat in a uniformly pitiful tone) go a long way to selling the misery of his character’s hopeless situation. After all, Ruth Gordon may be her usual rough-hewn, taboo-ignorant self, and her character may be frustratingly senile and casually cruel (even through her forgetfulness, she remembers that Segal isn’t her favorite child). But in the annals of awful parents in film, she’s pretty tame. What she is, is Jewish. She is the ultimate iteration of the henpecking, disapproving Jewish mom. Not for nothing does critic Dennis Schwartz call Where’s Poppa?the mother of all Jewish-mother joke films.” (An alternate ending carries this joke to its ultimate, taboo-pulverizing conclusion.)

So there’s your conflict: Segal is either going to get rid of his mom or he’s not. And the filmmakers know that once we have seen the answer, the movie is over. So we get a lot of playing for time, with Segal by turns smitten and pleading with would-be love interest Van Devere (they make a cute couple), and enduring endless humiliations at the hands of his mother. (The advertising team was particularly delighted with a scene where Gordon yanks down Segal’s pants and kisses him on the posterior; a witless suggestion that the scene had been commemorated on a postage stamp is repeated in numerous trailers for the film.) But after that, there’s not really anywhere else to go.

So director Reiner and screenwriter Ron Klane (whose credits include the more charmingly black Weekend at Bernie’s) go outward. It turns out that everyone we encounter is some level of insane. A football coach is a child kidnapper. An Army general proudly recalls his cold-blooded murder of surrendering enemies, while a peace activist advocates for his cause through maiming. A bridegroom indulges himself in a scatological fashion on his wedding night. The insanity of these characters and more appear to be infectious, as Segal’s grip on reality only becomes more tenuous and lapses into Walter Mitty-style fantasies, such as his mother’s demise at the hands of a dog, or Van Devere beckoning to him in a wedding gown while he himself sits astride a horse in full knight regalia.

Of course, the most insane of all may be Segal’s schlemiel brother, the subject of an agonizing subplot that exists primarily to deliver “hilarious” jokes about African-American thuggery, gay panic, and rape. It’s tempting to suggest that these are jokes which have aged poorly, but there’s so little joke to be had in the first place (for example, the rape joke seems to revolve primarily around the repetition of the word “rape”) that it seems hard to believe the sell-by date was anytime in the 20th century. This is not to say Where’s Poppa? is without laughs, mind you. For example, a scene where a man in a gorilla costume gets the cab that would not stop for an African-American woman has real bite. But the movie’s throw-it-against-the-wall approach to humor allows for no polish or refinement, so the jokes that bomb do so catastrophically.

Where’s Poppa? has the courage of its convictions, but in the end has no real convictions, other than an overwhelming desire to be shocking. That goal is met fairly often, but like a feast of cotton candy, it’s not very filling when the meal is over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a terrifically acted, unevenly directed, wild, absurd comedy-fantasy that is hilarious one moment, amusing the next, and foolish the moment after that.”–Danny Peary, “Cult Movies”

CAPSULE: DARLING (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Mickey Keating

FEATURING: , Brian Morvant

PLOT: A young woman hired to house-sit in the oldest residence in Manhattan discovers evidence of an occult history, and her grip on reality immediately begins to unravel.

Still from Darling (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Darling effectively captures a violent descent into madness, with filmic techniques that heighten the lead character’s insanity. But there’s not much that’s actively unusual about it, and the film’s most notable plot elements hearken back to earlier, superior movies.

COMMENTS: One person, alone. Only the sights and sounds as company. At what point does detachment make way for dementia? When does sanity start to break down? The idea of the lone individual doing battle with both oppressive solitude and personal demons is a hallmark of storytelling, whether in literature (Robinson Crusoe, The Shining), on the small screen (Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent,” The Twilight Zone pilot “Where Is Everybody?”), and certainly in the movies (Cast Away, 127 Hours, Buried). So the near-solo effort that is Lauren Ashley Carter’s performance has a healthy precedent. But in this particular instance, one film looms over Darling like a mighty monolith: Repulsion. That’s bad news for Darling, because other than a reduction in the cast and an increase in the level of hinted-at gore, the new film is barely a gloss on its predecessor.

The film’s entire modus operandi is to minimize any of the elements that would serve to explain, justify, or add any depth to our heroine’s plight. She has no name (the credits offer “Darling,” but it still sounds more like Sean Young’s term of irritated affection). We have no sense of her past or history, until a very late reveal. Her wardrobe seems to consist of two dresses and a nightgown (with a soupçon of gratuitous nudity for good measure). She has virtually no interaction with others, save for one character who establishes the premise and another to serve as a target for her unleashed rage. With no clear wants or needs, nothing that marks her as an individual, your guess as to what drives her descent into madness is as good as anyone else’s; she’s a tabula rasa protagonist. Even the elegant black-and-white photography saps any color from Darling’s existence.

With that void at the center, all that’s left is the scare factor. We know that shock value is the movie’s raison d’etre right from the title card, which abruptly jumps from gentle piano music to a horror-saturated, Herrmann-esque stabbing cue that slams into the film like a speeding truck. From this point forward, Darling (and, accordingly, the audience) is assaulted by shock jump cuts, sudden surprising noises, and disturbing images. And to be fair, they work just about every time. But they’re a reminder of Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation of the difference between the shock of a bomb going off versus the suspense of waiting on that bomb. There’s no suspense in Darling. The main character’s fate is clear from the outset, and we’re just waiting for it to arrive.

The screenplay plays lip service to the idea of an explanation. A crumb of backstory about past occurrences in the house, a piece of jewelry in a blasphemous setting, and most notoriously a hint of sexual assault in our heroine’s past: these are the clues we have to help us answer the question of whether Darling is driven mad by her surroundings or brings the crazy with her. Carter throws herself into the role, walking the line between victim and aggressor, but ultimately, we can’t know what motivates her because the film doesn’t care. The scares are all that matters. It’s not so much a story as it is a haunted house.

Mickey Keating is a gifted filmmaker. He likes to use Kubrick framing, and plays with long takes, slow pans, and implied violence as much as explicit. He spices things up with jump cuts, inserts, blackouts, and every sound trick in the book. He even manages to extract shock value from moments that should be free of surprise, such as when a policeman inspects a bag whose contents are well-known to us. But he happens to be working with Keating the screenwriter, who has crafted a scare-delivery system rather than a story. That’s why the memory of Repulsion proves so damaging to any assessment of Darling: when you can get the same tale told with greater depth, adding more “gotcha” moments feels like a poor trade-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“More experimental than mainstream horror viewers will be expecting, ‘Darling’ works best as an alluring, hallucinogenic mood piece that makes its way under the skin. It feels classy even when blood is being shed in a monochromatic frame.”–Jeremy Kibler, The Artful Critic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BIRDS OF NEPTUNE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Richter

FEATURING: Britt Harris, Molly Elizabeth Parker, Kurt Conroyd, Christian Blair

PLOT: Two sisters in Portland who have fallen into a pattern of stagnation and poor choices find their complacency upended when a manipulative man comes into their lives.

Still from Birds of Neptune (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the explanation for how the sisters got that way is a little on the peculiar side, the film itself plays it straight as an examination of two people who can’t move forward but refuse to look back until compelled to by an outside force.

COMMENTS: Fans of the satirical comedy show “Portlandia” have come to know the city as a place populated by extreme quirkiness and a measured indifference to social norms. Birds of Neptune, filmed in the city and featuring a local cast, plays it deadly serious, but it actually reinforces that same perception to outsiders about how life is lived in Stumptown.

Our leads absolutely play into the stereotype. Rachel is an experimental musician who is putting off both going to college and getting an abortion. (Kevin O’Connor and Erik Blood share credit for the score, which seems to include Rachel’s intriguing noodlings on the guitar). Big sister Mona, on the other hand, supports them both through her job as an exotic dancer with a preference for the avant-garde, including one routine in which she dresses like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Mona is harsh in assessing Rachel’s prospects, but also seems to be passive-aggressively standing in her way.

At the strip club Mona picks up Zach, a hipster-bearded psychology major with a penchant for nosing into the sisters’ business. He’s the one who discovers their dark secret—they were brought up in a Rajneesh-style cult laced with elements of Scientology, and still go through some of the motions of their unusual faith. This twist is probably the oddest element of the film, but there’s novelty in the fact that the film doesn’t condemn the girls for their mystical beliefs. In fact, their antagonist’s behavior manages to make a virtue of their ongoing commitment to a spiritual life that otherwise seems outwardly ridiculous and even dangerous.

We never learn precisely what Zach’s damage is, but he quickly makes it his mission to turn Mona against her sister, and then against her own past. This past includes an abandoned bathroom that is obviously the site of yet another family tragedy. Zach also seems determined to bed Rachel and destroy her budding friendship with a smitten 15-year old named Thor. (The film hangs a lampshade on that name at a critical moment in the film). In short, he’s a jerk. We get traces of this early on, as he snoops through the sisters’ house, but subtext becomes explicit as he purposely manipulates the two women, weakening the one while inadvertently spurring the other to take more definitive action.

In the final act, the film takes a very unexpected left turn into the realm of revenge thriller. It’s a curious choice from director Richter and co-screenwriter Flavia Rocha. If it’s intended to show how Rachel makes the crucial decision to move ahead with her life, that choice is already made. And if it’s meant to pull Mona out of her spiral into depression, it overlooks the fact that she is left alone at film’s end, now without direction herself. In any event, the characters are already developing steadily without the need for a sudden burst of violence to prod them along. It’s an illogical twist, which is weird, in a way.

Birds of Neptune is somewhat portentous, with lengthy shots of birds on branches and passing clouds serving as act breaks, and heavy dialogue scenes in which characters poke at each other in order to figure out each other’s “deal.” Ultimately, Birds of Neptune is a lot like its setting: laid-back, a little quirky, and getting where it wants to go at its own pace.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While Birds Of Neptune may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.”–Ben Umstead, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)