BORDERLINE WEIRD: STINGRAY SAM (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Cory McAbee

FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Crugie, David Hyde Pierce

PLOT: Ex-con/lounge singer Stingray Sam grudgingly joins his former partner the Quasar Kid

Still from Stingray Sam (2009)

in a quest to save a little girl, with frequent musical breaks featuring songs by The Billy Nayer Show. David Hyde Pierce narrates intermittent segments of animated collage that explain their futuristic society.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It’s a wacky, memorable space musical with western flair, crisp black and white visuals, and imaginative, nonsensical notions of the future, but all that can be found in slightly more intriguing form in McAbee’s earlier work The American Astronaut, which better serves The List by being a feature-length movie (Stingray Sam is an hour-long serial).  But it certainly contains enough of its own charm and inventiveness to stand alongside its predecessor, and it shouldn’t be wholly dismissed just yet.

COMMENTS: Conspicuously sponsored by the fictional “Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco” and excitedly asking what our heroes will be up to next at the end of every episode, Stingray Sam is a fitting tribute to old-fashioned serials, keeping many of the western and sci-fi elements of such shows while incorporating a wealth of inspired new ideas. There are several weird inventions and convenient technologies to place it in the futuristic space setting, but the sets are wonderfully low-key and familiar. McAbee’s incredible charm seeps through the screen in everything from his performance to the silly dialogue, aided along by the excellent musical numbers and gorgeous animated collage sequences.

By the time the second episode’s explanatory animated piece details the upper class invention of gender-determining drugs, male-on-male baby-making, and a delightful portmanteau naming system, what started out as a fairly straightforward quest to rescue a maiden quickly evolves into a madcap journey through McAbee’s unpredictable imagination.  The layers of references, backstory, character, and pseudo-science wrapped up in a musical comedy-adventure are impressively nuanced.  David Hyde Pierce’s articulate and tongue-in-cheek narration (which delights particularly in the word “Durango”) offers a range of ideas, inventions, and happenings that don’t always make sense but never fail to spark interest.  The first time around some of this information goes by too quickly, as viewers are hit with so many novelties and humorous animation at once, but subsequent watches prove McAbee’s involved story and unique futuristic vision to be unavoidably successful, if preposterous.

With catchy tunes that probably sit somewhere in the rock and roll spectrum yet manage to remain without a definable genre classification, The Billy Nayer Show (who also comprise several main cast members) craft a fun soundtrack that usually leads to manic dancing and wide smiles.  Each episode contains one song, which never encroaches on the action or comedy (and often increases the latter), along with a curt opening theme that reminds us “Stingray Sam is not a hero, but he does do the things that folks don’t do that need to be done.”  They serve to make the strange story even more memorable, describing stingray babies, entertainment on Mars, and peg-legged fathers, and add an extra element of goofy joy to the work.

Looking past the wonky sci-fi premise and western trappings (complete with cowboy hats and “yes ma’ams”), the heart of Stingray Sam lies in the unbridled glee the entire project exudes. As Sam, McAbee swings his way into everyone’s hearts with his jerky dance moves, easy smile, and affable demeanor, while Crugie keeps his cool as the Quasar Kid, offers some gruffer tunes, and frequently betrays a weakness for olives.  Their intricate secret handshake is just icing on this lovable, quirky cake of a partnership.  The beleaguered faces of many supporting cast members seem somehow twisted and plasticine, suiting the off-kilter atmosphere perfectly as they help or hinder our heroes’ proceedings.  There’s not much else like Stingray Sam.

Stingray Sam is currently only available directly from director Cory McAbee at his personal site (click here to purchase).  If the film follows the marketing plan of The American Astronaut, it will eventually be released via normal distribution channels as well.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sounds weird? You bet your ass… Cory McAbee manages to cram enough story and song in to each episode, each more ridiculous than the other and still come out with a coherent story and structure.”–Swarez, Twitchfilm

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  1. I suspect that either Stingray Sam or The American Astronaut will make The List. They sound too similar to both make it. Dennis Harvey of Variety thought Stingray was an improvement over the first film, but Astronaut certainly sounds more like a traditional movie. Decisions, decisions!

  2. As much as I love both, I think The American Astronaut works better for the List, and not just because it’s a feature-length film. It’s weirder because it’s more ambiguous, and gets inside your head with the insane amount of questions it instills in its viewers. In a good way, though!

  3. Pingback: Stingray Sam at 366 Weird Movies | Alex Kittle

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