Category Archives: 366 Underground

366 UNDERGROUND: TURN IN YOUR GRAVE (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Rob Ager

FEATURING: Marc Bolton, Jennifer Moylan-Taylor, Debra Redcliffe, Christopher Honey, Richie Nolan, Christopher Pavlou, Bonnie Adair

PLOT: Seven characters wake up with no memory inside a warehouse; they’re besieged by a menagerie of monsters and teased with abstract clues as they search for an exit.

Still from Turn in Your Grave (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’re jaded weirdsville patrons around here. The creators of Turn In Your Grave have certainly made a passing acquaintance with our wild jungle, but they obviously haven’t seen Maximum Shame yet. But it’s still just weird enough to warrant keeping an eye on Rob Ager, in case he comes up with a more distilled brew later.

COMMENTS: Shot in black-and-white or muted color, we open to bewildered people waking up in a warehouse, silhouetted by puzzle pieces and with industrial tones on the soundtrack. If you’re looking to grab the attention of a weird movie site, you’re off to a good start! The group of seven take in their surroundings, with boxes, mirrors, nonsensical paintings and flags of several countries. All of the characters question what this place is and how they got there. Sounds like we have another ontological mystery on our hands. Sure enough, they all start talking and asking each other what’s going on.

The space they’re in seems set up to mess with their minds—paintings flip over, doors appear, and several of them have conflicting views of their environment. This of course leads the paranoid dude in the camo jacket (seven and a half minutes in, what took him so long?) to accuse the group of harboring a planted agent and to start threatening violence against them if they don’t fess up. And did we mention some of the boxes they rummage through contain weapons? No sooner is the fight getting started than loud noises from outside cause them to scramble for arms to meet this new threat. Through the dark doorway, otherwordly zombie-like beings immediately emerge and begin to attack, but their bodies phase out like static while our cast struggles with them. The first monsters are easily defeated, promptly dematerializing after they fall.

We’re just getting started. The warehouse eventually turns out to be more than just this one big room, and the place is crawling with monsters, ranging from guys in childish papier-mâché head masks to full-on gory ghouls. And so we go on, puzzles and unexplained events piling up while the cast banters in “Waiting for Godot” terms, wondering why somebody is doing this and is it some kind of joke or test, that sort of thing. The events follow a poetic logic, such as when stricken monsters vanish into flutters of paper scraps, while other scraps of paper turn up stuck to boxes and shirts with teasing clues typed on them. Illusions and delusions abound, but one thing is certain, the monsters are getting feistier and harder to fight off with every wave.

Bring on the cast questioning their fragmenting sanity, or running in terror through hallways with nightmarish aberrations in pursuit. Think of Cube (1997), Circle (2015), and Exam (2009) for touchstones the same genre. With a story like this, you can settle down to being pitched an onslaught of riddles mounting into a confusing haze, and it isn’t going to matter whether at the end we get a satisfying explanation or are left in limbo. What’s going to matter to the weird movie viewer is how the journey goes. Things do get pretty creepy within this framework, mixing some outright horror with its surreal mystery, suggesting alternate dimensions, or that perhaps they’re all imprisoned in a psychotic’s dream. For the record, the ending, a blessed relief from the claustrophobic former acts, is certainly an original twist on the run-of-the-mill ontological mystery.

Bear in mind that this is a micro-budget production, but you can see where they made every penny count. The acting is solid and capable, the film work is expert level, and the props and effects squeeze in as much imagination as they can. It has a style of its own, especially as the paintings are one-of-a-kind and suitably loopy, to suggest a well-oiled imagination somewhere around the corner. Later monster attacks double down on elaborate costumes and imagination levels, with rows of wood screws doubling for teeth or DVDs lodged on the face for eyes. There’s some good jump scares and spooky sound effects to keep things skewed, and at least the monster attacks and action stop it from becoming a talky bore. Hey, the ending even invites fanciful interpretations! This is exactly the kind of first project a larval-stage or would make while still in school, so we can’t say there’s no potential here. Of course, this is also the kind of production you’d make if you were a stoner college student who’s a big fan of Cube and Exam and didn’t have any better ideas, so we also can’t give it an unqualified rave.

Bottom line: not too shabby a starting act! As a freshman midterm, it gets an A. But it’s far too early in his career to tell whether Rob Ager is destined to shake up the world.

Turn in Your Grave is available exclusively from the official website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When there is a concept in a filmmaker’s head that he/she is trying to communicate to an audience, that’s great… but somehow that concept needs to make it out of that filmmaker’s head and into the heads of the audience eventually. If that never does happen then what you get is a film that only makes sense to the filmmaker, while leaving the audience dazed and confused.”–Don Sumner, HorrorFreak News

LIST CANDIDATE: HITLER LIVES! (2017)

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Stuart Rowsell

FEATURING: Morte, Jay Katz, Chris Sadrinna

PLOT: The deteriorating, practically zombified body of Adolf Hitler shuffles around a bunker deep underground, his nightmares and visions of past associates interrupted only by visits from a faithful henchman and his telecommunications with Dr. Mengele, who has unsettling plans to permanently immortalize the erstwhile Führer.

Still from Hitler Lives! (2017)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hitler Lives! is definitely weird, with hallucinated marionette memories, decomposing visuals mimicking the decomposing Hitler, and an ending that cannot be un-watched (much like most of the movie). The lack of polish, although sometimes smacking of amateurism, is stylistically effective; kind of like if Jörg Buttgereit started a movie promised a tiny budget, but instead was given no budget.

COMMENTS: Wikipedia tells us that “Adelaide is the capital city of the state of South Australia, and the fifth-most populous city of Australia. In June 2016, Adelaide had an estimated resident population of 1,324,279.” What that opening blurb does not mention is that one of those 1.3 million people was none other than Adolf Hitler. Perhaps that is unsurprising, as the former dictator was busy slowly decomposing in an underground bunker in 2016. That, in brief, is the premise of Stuart Rowsell’s zero-budget trash horror weirdness, Hitler Lives! In a string of un-unseeable scenes taking place over an unclear amount of time, we get to watch, in horror spiced with disgust, as Hitler shuffles around in mostly solitary agony.

Beginning topside, two construction workers zip down into a tunnel as one of them regales the other with an anecdote about his grandfather helping to transport Adolf Hitler from the Antarctic hideaway to which he escaped after Germany’s fall. The colleague meets the once powerful demagogue, who is now scarcely able to move and hooked up to some ominous, boiler-looking device. After the worker is killed to fuel the boiler, things get grislier as Hitler hallucinates, hacks, stumbles around, and is increasingly distressed about Doctor Mengele’s new plan for their immortality.

So, we’ve got a few standard items here: Hitler did not die at the end of World War II; weird science has come to the Führer’s rescue; and at least one Nazi ended up in Argentina (Dr. Mengele). Director Stuart Rowsell, a special effects man by trade, twists those tropes into perhaps the least palatable presentation possible. Dorff’s doomed colleague immediately smells gangrene upon entering the bunker, and we almost can, too. The atmosphere on-screen is stifling, and the visuals look as decayed and dripping as Adolf’s rotting body. A video screen displays constant Nazi propaganda, and Hitler’s wistful musings about Wagner and success are constantly interrupted by creepy, strangely-voiced marionettes of his past henchmen (Göring, von Ribbentrop, and Hess are among the Nazi superstars we see puppetized) as well as unnerving videophone calls from Doctor Mengele. And did I mention aliens? They appear very briefly, but allow for what is one of the most… memorable endings I’ve endured in a while.

As you saw at the top of this review: Beware. We’re running precipitously low on slots, but as much as it was a trial at times, Hitler Lives! has earned, through slime, ickiness, outlandishness, and puppetry, serious consideration for Certified status. I’ve mentioned it had no budget, which is a bit of a lie: a whopping 150,000 Australian dollars were funneled into this. Impressively small change, yes, particularly considering how thoroughly real (in its surreal, unsettling way) Hitler Lives! feels. Perhaps the weirdest thing of all, however—and I say this with considerable reservation—is that by the end, the movie somehow makes the viewer pity the walking corpse on display. This feeling dissipates quickly once one leaves the rancid bunker, but the fact that human sentiment could be so upended for 80 minutes is impressive.

THE DIRECTOR SAYS:

“…the film was never stage managed for the mainstream – it was designed and written for the alternative fringe of the ‘strange film’ loving audience …. so the film is what it is – a messed up surreal trash exploitation film made on a limited budget of next to zero, that only ‘the audience of the weird’ and strange film could understand and enjoy!

Hitler Lives! was made for the weirdest audience that exists.

Hitler Lives! is available to watch on USA Streaming websites such as iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, XBox and Google Play …. visit www.hitlerlives.com for updates on more VOD/Streaming … as of yet there is no official DVD/Blu Ray release – maybe there will be a release in a year or so, depending on interest and demand…”–Stuart Rowsell

366 UNDERGROUND: STAR TREK TIME WARP TRILOGY (2010-2013)

DIRECTED BY: Brandon M. Bridges

FEATURING: Brandon M. Bridges

PLOT: A series of time paradoxes reunite a Starfleet captain with a friend he’d long thought dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While a handful of scenes approach delightfully high levels of weirdness, the trilogy as a whole is too monotonous and just plain boring to be worthwhile.

COMMENTS: For the lover of outsider cinema, fan films are a tricky lot to evaluate. On one level, fan films make up one of the most plentiful sources of DIY filmmaking. Persons whose movie production experience ranges from amateur to none gather together out of nothing but a shared enthusiasm for their subject to make films. They write their own scripts, sew their own costumes, scout out whatever locations their friends and family have access to, and rent or buy their own equipment, all with zero expectation of commercial recompense due to copyright law. The best of fan films are filmmaking for filmmaking’s sake, regardless of budget, experience or competence, and that’s fertile ground for weird cinema.

There’s something at the root of the fan film, however, that often prevents it from being a truly weird product. By its very nature, the fan film is intrinsically tied to the aesthetics and ideologies of the commercial film industry, because it’s the output of that very industry that fan filmmakers are trying to imitate. Fan films might be described as an audiovisual form of cosplay. Be it “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” or “The Lord of the Rings,” most fan films aim to replicate their source material as closely as a limited budget and volunteer crew and cast allows. While there’s still plenty of room for creative expression within these confines, just as there is in fan art and fanfiction, the firm ties to pre-established canons and aesthetics severely hamper the fan film’s potential for weirdness.

I don’t know if I’ve seen a fan film that typifies this dichotomy between slavish devotion to source material and bizarre outsider weirdness as much as Brandon Bridges’ Star Trek: Time Warp trilogy. Its visual fidelity to the “Star Trek” universe comes down to minute details of each ship and uniform, and it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that it was all done by one man. At the same time, the constant insertion of what are clearly the director’s personal interests throws all that fidelity into disarray. Archived video of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” plays a vital role in the protagonist’s attempts to determine the identify of a time-traveling warlord. Bridges also has a relationship with “The Price Is Right” that’s akin to ’s relationship with angora wool. Serious plot developments occur in holodeck recreations of the Bob Barker era set, and the game show’s full theme plays in each of the three films.

Maybe the strangest thing about the Time Warp trilogy isn’t its length, or its obsession with mid-70s daytime television, but rather how un-“Star Trek” the narrative feels. On a surface level, the story has many of the staples of “Trek,” particularly the original series and “Next Generation” films of the 80s and 90s. There are temporal anomalies, starship battles, and political conspiracies to disrupt peace in the universe. But most of the run time isn’t spent on any of these things; instead, it’s devoted to long, verbose conversations between the characters about their personal and emotional lives.

This isn’t to say emotional storytelling hasn’t been a focus of certain incarnations of “Star Trek,” but at their creative peak the franchise wove such storytelling into its narrative, revealing characters’ interior lives through their reactions to the events surrounding them. In Time Warp, sci-fi touchstones like time travel and alien invasions come off as little more than nuisances rudely interrupting the crew’s navel-gazing. While the concept of a mid-century melodrama occasionally interrupted by Romulans is appealing, the execution here is unfortunately just boring.

Each film in the Time Warp trilogy is available to view for free on Youtube.

366 UNDERGROUND: MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO (2015)

“I made Rise of Torgo following what I call ‘Hal’s Rules’: very few takes, no shots over 30 seconds, shoot without sound and pay no one up front. There’s no way to copy what Hal Warren did, so I set out to make a film that is a sibling to the original, similar yet different.”–David Roy, 2016 interview with 366 Weird Movies

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jackie Neyman Jones, Joe Warren, Danny McCarty, Elizabeth Redpath, Matt Rogers

PLOT: In this prequel to the notoriously bad cult film Manos: The Hands of Fate, we learn the origin of iconic characters the Master and Torgo.

Still from Manos: The Rise of Torgo (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Rise of Torgo is an often-striking addition to the Manos world, with several inventive and unique aspects that had potential, but ultimately its slavish devotion to the original and a plodding pace prevent it from being a satisfying prequel. It’s not good enough to be great and not terrible enough to be an entertaining “bad” film, falling somewhere between competent and ordinary.

COMMENTS: Manos: The Rise of Torgo faces two major concerns from the outset: one, it follows up an iconic cult film fifty-something years after the fact; and two, it purposefully sets out to make a “bad” movie. The first concern is similar to the dilemma faced by the recent follow up to 1982’s Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, which I though was plagued by the weight of its highly influential predecessor and was most successful when it strayed from the source material. Similarly, Rise of Torgo is most engaging when building its own mythos, and least successful when recreating or reusing elements of the original film. Obviously there’s no comparison between the two franchises (Blade Runner vs. Manos) in terms of production value or popular success; I mention it only because of the comparable uneven mix of old and new elements, the considerable lengths between installments, and because both films feature actors from the original franchise.

The second concern arises when a competent filmmaker attempts to recreate the errors of people with no concept of how to turn out a polished, coherent product. The errors often feel forced or labored, and the schadenfreude derived from witnessing genuinely misguided filmmaking is replaced with boredom and irritation. The great “terrible” films like Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), Troll 2 (1990) or The Room (2003) were made by genuinely misguided filmmakers, outsiders like or who seem removed from ordinary human experience and can only write dialogue and cut footage together from their own strange impulses. They show instincts devoid of even the slightest knowledge of how ordinary human beings communicate, or of how filmmakers arrange footage to create meaning and coherence.

The original Manos brimmed with the kind of odd editing choices and bizarre dialogue that truly defines bad cinema. It featured twenty second shots of Torgo stumbling around with luggage, accompanied by his own music cue, alongside his tremulous delivery of lines like, “I meant no harm, Madam, I’ll protect you… I’ll protect you.” Director Harold Warren had no formal film training, and it shows, especially when a shot of the clapperboard is featured in scenes with the kissing couple. The amateur nature of the production is stamped throughout the exasperating length of the film.

Rise of Torgo’s auteur, David Roy, is clearly no slouch at film making. His shots are well composed, the color grading enhances elements for effect, and there are even special effects (admittedly cheesy ones, probably designed as such to fit the Manos universe). This is a capable filmmaker attempting to make a bad film, and as such a lot of the fun is taken out of the picture. What we get instead are elements of garbage woven through a competently produced picture.

Rise of Torgo gets off to a good, campy start, with an introduction to the Master and the God Manos (represented by Jackie Neyman Jones, the little girl from the original), presented as a floating head, like the ghost of Mufasa in The Lion King. We then learn the origins of Torgo’s birth, involving twin midwives (who later turn out to be his grandmothers) and a blessing from a cross-eyed gypsy. She is promptly jettisoned from the rest of the film and her presence never explained. All original and amusing “bad filmmaking” choices so far. A woman in the woods inexplicably sings about her love for goats, and given Torgo’s hinted-at satyr nature in the original film, we might even expect the two to meet and develop a romance. Sadly, at this point in the film Manos “call-backs” take over. The girl merely becomes a victim of the Master’s original caretaker, and an otherwise fresh, surreal characteristic goes unutilized.

The “Them” Torgo’s Mother speaks of is an interesting aspect thrown into his psychology, but ultimately becomes pointless in his transformation into the Master’s slave. That transformation arises from a combination of bullying and the power of Manos. The twin Grandmothers speak and move in sync, an interesting feature that remains merely a curiosity and fails to inform the story in any significant way. It’s a device that had potential, but ultimately falls to the necessity of sticking to the elements of The Hands of Fate. The film occasionally even fails to satisfy this requirement: Torgo doesn’t have the same quavering, tremulous voice as the original, not even after his transformation by Manos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you enjoyed the original Manos, you’ll probably find this to be a worthy sequel, in the sense that it strives to stylistically be as similar as possible. If campiness is your thing, you’re in for a fun ride.”–David Gelmini, Dread Central

Manos: The Rise of Torgo Facebook Site

366 UNDERGROUND: SUGGESTIVE GESTURES (2013)

DIRECTED BY: David Finkelstein

FEATURING: David Finkelstein, Cassie Tunick

PLOT: A montage of concrete and abstract symbols, a dialogue of nonsense sounds and philosophizing, and an ever-present labyrinth: there is no story, per se, but a series of audio-visual landscape vignettes, as a combination of words and images collide.

Still from Suggestive Gestures (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSuggestive Gestures clearly falls into the category of “weird”—which is to its credit. A lot of times one can be on the fence and hem and haw about weirdness. It isn’t really a movie, however, as much as a video art installation piece.

COMMENTS: Considering the nature of Suggestive Gestures, I strongly suspect that the filmmaker would be pleased to hear that I had a dream about it last night. In that dream, I fully understood the depth of its symbolism and the pertinence of every bit of wordplay. In fact, I even wrote a witty and lucid review. Alas, I woke up, and it was just a dream — here below this line I see blank chunks of “Comments” still to type. However, I am undeterred: David Finkelstein’s “movie” was a pleasure to watch, and I’ve been obliged to write about “movies” that were far otherwise.

My original write-up for the “Plot” section was the words, “not applicable,”, and I wonder if I should have stuck with that. The opening of the film was subtle enough that I thought perhaps I was watching a little production company animation before getting to the opening credits. I was mistaken. What was being shown was the canvas, as it were, on which all the subsequent events were to be painted: a stylized maze with what looked like an aloe plant at the center. Once the spinning pink glasses showed up, I realized taking plot notes was going to be a fool’s errand. At that point I just sat back and let the sights and sounds wash over me like a refreshing wave.

Combining (purposefully) low-level computer graphics with two talking heads, it suggested to me, oddly enough, what Begotten might look like as an elaborate HyperStudio project done by . The male character (David Finkelstein) comes across as a neurotic Super Ego, counter-balancing the various ravings and rants of the female (Cassie Tunick), an Id-like being. Glued at various times to a symbol-strewn backdrop (birds flying through the ground, water flowing in the sky, jagged rocks labeled “sharp” dropping on and slicing other images), they partake in a sort of meta-discourse that, as the artists’ description relates, relies as much on the words’ sounds as the words themselves. This went on (somehow enjoyably) for approximately 75 minutes before melting into the opening maze image.

I apologize if I’ve expressed myself poorly, but I’ve never reviewed such a thing as Suggestive Gestures before. To anyone with the vaguest interest in the description I’ve provided, I recommend you give it a go—as something new and intriguing, it hits the mark nicely. I mean the following in no way as dismissive, but I think its best placement might be on a loop in your hotel room. Puttering around, getting ready to go out, you can absorb the images, fuse them with the words, and find yourself contemplating the various sounds and branches of a word like “glorious” as you go through your busy day.

Suggestive Gestures: Trailer from David Finkelstein on Vimeo.

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

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

 

366 UNDERGROUND: THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joana Castro, Bruno Senune, Carina de Matos, Falvia Barabas, Daniel Pires

PLOT: Shuffling between the interior and exterior of a building (with guest appearances from some jagged cliffside rocks), various symbolic events occur because of the actions of various symbolic people.

Still from The Kingdom of Shadows (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This clutter of film scenes might be interpreted as “weird”, but I’m leery to describe the onscreen capering as a “movie”. Perhaps it’s just my staggering lack of interpretive skills, but when the characters are only somewhat explainable because you read the opening credits, I find the “movie” part a bit wanting. Not much is clear, and the lack of dialogue handily augments the altogether excessive incoherence of the narrative.

COMMENTS: I shall begin by saying that Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais may well have accomplished something impressive with their symbol-ridden film, The Kingdom of Shadows. Throughout the film there are little hiccups of inspired images that, in isolation, would make for compelling photographs to ponder. The lack of dialogue lends itself to a lack of explanation, but that allows for a mutuality of incomprehension across the globe. Unfortunately, it leaves the viewer grasping blindly for what it is the filmmakers are trying to say.

The story proper (I am guessing) begins weirdly enough with a pair of golden hands magically boiling up a pot of water. What ensues is a long-form mishmash of figurative images and sequences that vaguely intrigue, and certainly baffle, the viewer. A furtive young man appears during the bridging sequences, who may be acting as witness, along with us viewers. Inside a 19th-century (?) house, a clutch of people (indicated in the credits as “mother”, “daughter”, “uncle”, and so on) interact in strange ways with motives that are impossible to divine. An inspector comes along at some point (again, we know his vocation only from the credits) and twirls his mustache a lot. Eventually the gang inside the house takes up arms against the “daughter,” driving her outside. Interrupting the action is a pair of (usually naked) young people having quasi-dance-like interactions of joy, terror, and sundry other feelings.

As I’ve hinted in the preceding paragraphs, while there may be a lot going on in the movie, very little of it makes any sense. It would help if I knew what the directors were trying to say, and a commentary would no doubt be illuminating. That said, this presents a problem: any movie that cannot stand up to unsupervised viewing is of dubious merit. If there isn’t clarity, there needs to be a “vibe” of some sort, or at least an ambience. However, The Kingdom of Shadows is too scattered to have such a vibe, and any ambience is sabotaged by incoherent or careless touches. To support the latter, I give the example of a slow-moving “pursuit” scene through one of the house’s corridors. The turn-of-the-last-century feel is utterly destroyed by a very obvious smoke detector on the wall. Its square plastic frame and glowing electric light immediately crush whatever mood may have been built.

I have no doubt that all those involved poured their hearts and souls into making this movie, so it pains me a little to have to be so down on it. After the sturm und drang of various troubled moans from the young observer, after the not-quite balletic artiness of the “Adam and Eve” vignettes, and after the cranked up symbolism, we’re still left with something that’s a bit amateurish and more than a bit boring. If there were an unhealthy halfway point between How the Sky Will Melt and Begotten, this movie hits it, and hits it hard. ‘s piece—while perhaps incomprehensible—has that dream-like “thing” required for such an exercise in post-narrative film. That “thing” is never found by the directors of The Kingdom of Shadows, which is more the pity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film that does never try to make perfect sense, instead using impressive, often tableau-like imagery to get its point across… a film like this might not be for everybody, but those with open minds are up for a fascinating journey…”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]Search My Trash (contemoraneous)

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)

366 UNDERGROUND: FIRST MAN ON MARS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Lyddon

FEATURING: Marcelle Shaneyfelt, Benjamin J. Wood, Gavin Ferrara, Kirk Jordan

PLOT: An eccentric billionaire flies to Mars, mutates into a monster, then returns to Earth to terrorize the silly citizens of Black Bayou, Louisiana.

Still from First Man on Mars (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ironically, this movie is only 9/10ths bad enough. Movies like The Room or Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny are low-budget and bad, but done with a sense of conviction, albeit mis-aimed. First Man on Mars is just bad on the boring, no-ideas level, not even interesting enough to make the so-bad-its-good category.

COMMENTS: First Man on Mars is an intentional parody of ’60s-’70s sci-fi horror drive-in B-movies. We open on a coroner in an office giving us a desktop lecture a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, a scene that ends with a chant of “Keep watching the stars!” Then we get to Cletus and his chum hunting in Louisiana. They run across an abandoned space capsule and a rubber-mask monster who disembowels Cletus’ hunting buddy with no foreplay, sending the terrified hick running for the cops. Flashback: the monster from the capsule was once astronaut Eli Cologne, a very obvious parody of real-life billionaire, philanthropist, and visionary Elon Musk. Eli came to Mars seeking shiny gold, despite already being rich enough to buy his own rocket to go there. Grabbing his first nugget, however, results in a tear in his glove, which soon leads to an infection which will transform him.

Mission Control argues that he’s not allowed to come back infected, but Eli is hearing none of it. He returns just in time to transform into a growling monster in the backwoods of Louisiana. The rest of the flick is pretty much people scrambling around in forest either chasing or being chased by said monster, with only the thinnest veneer of justification. That cast includes Cletus and two cops who don’t believe his story; a sleazy photographer and two models from “Bullets and Bimbos” magazine who hire Cletus as a guide to the dark swamps of Black Bayou for a woodsy photo shoot; a group of scientists from Eli’s project; an innocent girl going fishing and being fished; and a coroner who investigates Cletus’ mangled remains in between bites of lunch.

“Low budget” doesn’t begin to describe it, and cash isn’t the only thing this flick is short on. It is very stingy with the alleged classic sci-fi references. Unless you blink and miss it, you’ll catch one of the bumbling scientists being dismissed as a “red shirt” (Trekkie, check), a clumsy bit of banter with a “Bullets and Bimbos” model name-dropping (Elephant Man, check), a scene where two scientists pitch a tent just so they can play D&D (gamer nerds, am I right, ha ha?) before getting slaughtered, and so on. However, the film is generous with poop humor, boob humor, gross-out humor, insulting stereotypes of country bumpkins and geeks alike, Dollar Store props that are milked for all the lead-painted rubber they’re worth, and an extremely fuzzy understanding of the meaning of the word “humor.” At one point, one of the scientists screams over and over that he needs to defecate, before wandering off and accidentally dumping a steamer (rubber doggy doo, $0.99) on a  yet undiscovered body. Said pile of doggy doo is referenced again and again, traveling with the body even to the coroner’s office. And that, apparently, is the movie’s best foot forward.

Let it be known, being low budget does not disqualify a film from the list of 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made (see Robot Monster and After Last Season). And simply being bad is no barrier to entry, either. But there is low budget, and then there is being stingy beyond all reason. At least Robot Monster had the imagination to try to sell a bubble machine as alien technology. Imagination costs nothing. First Man on Mars seems to be done with no intention of being taken seriously, on any level, and nothing shows anybody seemed motivated to put in much effort, either.

Viewers who like sitting through every amateur production made by kids goofing around with mom’s camera on YouTube will find First Man on Mars right up their alley. It at least passes that standard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurd blast from low-budget director Mike Lyddon and his team of willing actor and crew participants, putting everything on the proverbial line to make this ambitious project first and put their seemingly absent shame second.”–Steven T. Lewis, It’s Blogging Evil