Category Archives: List Candidates

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Abbott, , David Gale, Robert Sampson

PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.Still from Re-Animator (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.

COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that ‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films[1] to come from the golden ’80s.

With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.

Stuart Gordon was a director of an avant-garde theater troupe, and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

  1. Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand. []

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ENDLESS (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple

PLOT: Brothers who escaped a cult a decade ago receive a videocassette with a strange message and return to their old compound, where it becomes clear that behind the friendly facade of their erstwhile “family” lurks a hazard beyond contemplation.

Still from The Endless (2017)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTThe Endless starts out a little creepy, with altogether too-friendly cult members interacting with the two runaways that defamed their group, before evolving into something skin-crawlingly foreboding. An unnamed, immaterial, but ever-present Entity generates a recurring circumstance found throughout Arcadia Park that puts a new spin on the idea of being “lost in time.”

COMMENTS: A moral found in The Endless is well reflected by the filmmaker’s methods: keep moving. Acting as a veritable two-man band, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead do virtually all the heavy lifting in this science fiction(ish)/horror(ish) drama (no “ish”): they direct, star, write, and do the cinematography. They also reach back and pull their previous features (Resolution and Spring) forward along with them in subtle ways. Paradoxically combining pinpoint focus with immense scope, Benson and Moorhead squeeze an infinity into one story comprised of, for lack of a better phrase, many narrative wheels.

An opening montage introduces us to Justin and Aaron Smith (Benson and Moorhead), two brothers barely making ends meet by doing dead-end work, in desperate need of a new car battery. Their rut is interrupted by a parcel containing a camcorder videotape with a message from their past. The “alien death cult” they escaped apparently didn’t pull the trigger. Their visit to their old digs at Arcadia Park starts well enough, but unnerving details begin to accumulate: multiple moons in the sky, hazy atmospheric barrier walls, and ominous rock pillars scattered not-so-randomly around the camp. As Aaron becomes more enamored with cult life, Justin’s aversion spikes. Diving to the base of a buoy in the camp’s lake, he finds two things underwater: another camcorder cassette, and something unimaginably horrific that he barely escapes. Despite this, Aaron decides to stay. As Justin begins his journey home, he stumbles across the true nature of the problem at Arcadia Park, and returns to save his brother.

One could use any number of adjectives to describe how wonderful this movie is—gripping, mysterious, surprising, funny. I’m handicapped because were I to provide any more details, the film’s twists would be revealed. Suffice it to say, temporal manipulation plays heavily in The Endless; the title itself, perhaps, provides a clue. Arcadia Park’s citizenry do not seem to have aged much since the brothers’ departure. Is it merely healthy country living? There’s a heavily locked cabin under the watchful eye of an Arcadian elder. Does it contain guns, or something far more troubling? And as for that mental patient who wandered on to the cult’s grounds, how real are her charcoal drawings of a monstrous nebula looming over the camp? Unfortunately, I can only pose questions to make hints. Surprise is key.

At its screening at the Fantasia Film Festival, there was a point where every audience member was dead-silent, and I’m convinced we were all holding our breath at the same time. Throughout the bizarre adventure of Justin and Aaron, there is a delicate balance of mundane, humorous, and menacing—with a palpable shift toward the latter as the movie progresses. The film’s world and people are self-contained (in more ways than one), and no line is out of place or without purpose. And then there’s the moral to The Endless, as I said before: keep moving. I’d suggest there is also a second moral here: never put off replacing a car battery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…The Endless rapidly develops from a mysterious, elliptical story about cult survivors and strained relationships into a much larger and stranger movie…”–Tasha Robinson, The Verge (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: , , , , Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: The second chapter in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed cycle of five autobiographical films, “Endless Poetry” concerns his younger self’s fall for poetry, his resistance to his authoritarian father’s pressures to become a doctor, and his liberation from his oppressive family by joining Santiago’s bohemian artist circle.

Still from Endless Poetry (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While representing some of the most accessible and straightforward storytelling that the author has ever conjured, Endless Poetry is still very distinctively a vision from Jodorowsky, a result of his passionate and eccentric sensibility full of personal symbolism and mystical allusions, bizarre occurrences, and self-aware theatricality. The List’s increasingly limited slots, and the fact that Jodorowsky is already well-represented here, is all that keeps this one at the margin.

COMMENTS: With The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, legendary cult cinema hero and weirdophile favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky has entered, at 87 years old, an unexpected phase in his career where he embraces filmmaking as a therapeutic, expurgatory reliving of his past. In this second installment of his autobiographical project (intended as a five film series), we witness Jodorowsky’s adolescence in Santiago and his escape from the oppression of his father and the Darwinist worldview that he tries to enforce on his son, which clashes with the boy’s sensitivity and newfound interest in poetry sparkled by the writings of .

Very much in the same vein as its predecessor, this one takes the form of a psycho-autobiography where the artist renders his life as a mystical, oneiric and carnivalesque myth. Obviously, such a project could only be the product of Jodorowsky’s characteristic pretentiousness. If Dance, however, was relatively melancholic in tone, Poetry is more celebratory and narcissistic, portraying Jodorowsky’s awakening in an appropriately glorifying, joyous display. When Alejandro eventually runs away from home to join an artist’s collective, his immersion in poetry and a bohemian lifestyle is shown as an enlightenment and revelation of his true self and fate. His reception in the community of outcasts is the triumphant reception of a new member in a family, one in which he finally feels he belongs. Like his new siblings, Alejandro’s passion for art is absolute, and he insatiably wishes to “live” poetry. From this moment on, the film chronicles his experiences in the city’s artistic circle, discovering like-minded friends such as Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, and even a lover (played by the same actress who portrays his mother, in a Freudian stroke that remains integral to Jodo’s style).

The idealistic dilettantism that overwhelms and possesses Alejandro is never questioned; the daring and revolutionary mindset of his community is synonymous with liveliness, freedom, realization and self-hood, whereas the world of everyone else is depersonalized, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

LIST CANDIDATE: LOWLIFE (2017)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Prows

FEATURING: Nicki Micheaux, Mark Burnham, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Santana Dempsey, Shaye Ogbonna, Jon Oswald

PLOT: Unhinged restaurant owner Teddy Haynes runs a people-processing facility below his fish taco building, harvesting organs of undocumented immigrants and pimping out underage women. His enforcer, the luchador El Monstruo, is worried about the well-being of his pregnant wife Kaylee, while Kaylee’s biological mother suspects Teddy’s offer of a kidney for her ailing husband is too good to be true. Joining the madness is ex-con Randy, and soon this gang of oppressed underlings join forces to take Teddy to task.

Lowlife (2017) PosterWHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As you can read above, the plot is a mouthful—and that’s only covering its barest bones, so as to maintain coherency. Pitch-perfect editing leaves the viewer with countless narrative teases and denials. While we’re left wondering what’s going on plot-wise, Ryan Prows bombards us with Jacobean violence interspersed with hilarious dialogue and sight gags. Topping it all off, when El Monstruo’s rage becomes untenable, the sound crashes, and someone’s probably dead.

COMMENTS: Few of the movies at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival were primed with so much hype from the festival organizers. Out of the blue, they received Lowlife through their general Inbox, unsolicited and unexpected. From nothing, Ryan Prows’ debut feature became the must-see event of Fantasia. A heavy burden, for sure—with three weeks of movies to compete against, including the new space epic, Marc Meyers’ much lauded Dahmer biopic, and (to a lesser extent), the latest Jojo movie with its ravenous fans—but Lowlife comes up trumps.  Nothing is wasted in this movie; and more importantly, it would be a welcome addition to the 366 canon.

The story is told through the perspectives of each main character: the simple but passionate luchador el Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate); a bad-guy straight out of Dante’s “Vice City Infernus,” Teddy (Mark Burnham);  a hard-working, junk-hoarding motel owner, Crystal (Nicki Michaux); and a pair of friends—African American accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and his long-time pal, now with Swastika tattoo, Randy (Jon Oswald). Each of their Venn-diagram stories interact on the others’ heels, slowly moving into place, synchronizing as all the characters come together for the final action. This neat narrative stunt was pulled off by deft editing, and, to paraphrase the director, “[writing the $#!&] out of that story.”

During the disorienting narrative flow are the touches that further make Lowlife the visceral-but-surreal experience it is. When Crystal’s husband finds out the source of the kidneys he’ll be receiving, a combination of a flippant note, a heart-felt phone message, and visual exclamation point bring violence, tragedy, and humor into one tight scene, pulling the viewer’s emotions in all three directions. Then there’s the scene where Teddy, squaring off against some troublesome yahoos, seems licked when his six-shooter runs out of bullets. Heading back to his Italian-opera blaring sports car, he pops his pregnant hostage in the trunk, grabbing in her place the AR-15 that happens to be lying around in the back seat. And that’s not even mentioning the tragicomedy of el Monstruo and the comic tragedy of Hip-Hop Wigger Randy: two men marked for life from the neck up.

Lowlife plays like elements of movies many of us have seen before, but is a force unto itself. Imagine Inherent Vice on cocaine instead of marijuana; or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as Grand Guignol; or maybe the best comparison I can think of, Pulp Fiction with cajones. Like a spastic playing with a rubber-band, Lowlife plays with the viewer, pulling first toward shock with heartless violence, then laughter with gut-busting non sequitur (yup), then sadness with beastly tragedy. This gang of monsters, fiends, thugs, and criminals have a wacky adventure in a land of poverty, cruelty, and hilarity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ looms the largest over ‘Lowlife,’ with its flair for unexpected, quick violence, and interweaving vignettes. But there is also a touch of David Lynch in the film’s unflinching exposure of America’s seedy underbelly.”–Jamie Righetti, Indiewire (Fantasia screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: SEQUENCE BREAK (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Skipper

FEATURING: , , John Dinan,  Lyle Kanouse

PLOT: A young electrical technician unwisely installs a mysterious circuit board arrives that arrives at an arcade game refurbisher’s office and finds himself getting increasingly absorbed by the machine and its game—literally.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here’s a list of nouns: nipple console buttons, white goo circuitry, and coital gaming seizures.

COMMENTS: From the first man to star as Herbert West in Re-Animator: the Musical comes a science fiction debut catering directly to the Cronen-bourgeoisie. A millennial update to the classic Videodrome (and even to eXistenZ), Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break is a creepy love letter to the 80s tech-gore genre. There are tips-of-the-hat to those who have come before—Skipper’s most obvious inspiration is David Cronenberg (explicitly stating as much in his introduction to the movie’s world premiere)—but there are elements of Steven Lisberger’s Tron, and even John Hughes-style romance between the teenage-acting, 20-something boy and girl nerd leads.

Osgoode (Chase Williamson) works at “Jerry’s Arcade Spot,” using his technical prowess and tunnel vision to bring old upright consoles back to life. Tess (Fabianne Therese), an out-of-work geek girl, enters his life just as Jerry (Lyle Kanouse) tells him that he’s going to have to close the place. A mysterious zealot (John Dinan) delivers a circuit board on a night Jerry is supposed to be out of town. After an unfortunate murder the parcel is forgotten until Osgoode makes the mistake of installing it in an empty frame. Playing the game, reminiscent of the arcade classic “Tempest” by way of a Tibetan mandala, Osgoode finds himself increasingly absorbed—first metaphorically, then in dreams, and then physically—and his grip on life outside his machines loosens considerably. Does he have the focus to regain control? More importantly, is there the possibility of a second play-through?

Beyond its arcade premise, Sequence Break is a throw-back in many ways. Most of the special effects are of the practical sort, an art that—thank goodness—keeps coming back to life despite the assault of ever-advancing CGI nonsense. The sexual goo and manipulation of the “haunted” arcade console feels real as we see the controls squishify in Osgoode’s able hands. Simple editing and camera techniques create an increasingly jarring perspective: flash-cuts, image-distortion, twin-screen action, and most hauntingly, facial disintegration. Like Osgoode, we become unsure of what’s real, what’s a dream, and what’s in the machine.

The organic-mechanical world of classic Cronenberg is a frightening thing, and Graham Skipper pulls off the tricks nicely. Combined with the sickly-sexual imagery is a story of a young and talented fellow who only seems to have discovered human love well after adolescence. In a way, Sequence Break is a “love-conquers-all” kind of romance, where the male protagonist has to find the desire and focus to choose the real world over a sticky facsimile. As a directorial debut, Graham Skipper’s effort is an impressively unsettling but ultimately uplifting piece of low budget sci-fi cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The grand finale, in particular, goes into deliriously weird territory, in the best possible way.”–Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat (Fantasia)

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK WATERS (1993)

Temnye vody

DIRECTED BY:  Mariano Baino

FEATURING: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist

PLOT: Seeking answers to her own past, woman investigates an ancient holy order that guards a mysterious relic at a convent on an island.

Still from Dark Waters (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because the cute little Gollum guy on the ferryman’s boat squatting there chomping on raw meat is only the 80th or so most unforgettable image from this atmospheric dive into religious horror. That’s religion as in “Cthulhu,” not just “Virgin Mary.” Also, the nuns in this movie deserve to be the standard against which all creepy (not to mention crispy) nuns are compared. So throw the Gollum a bone: “He keeps the other freaks away!”

COMMENTS: We admit it’s cheap to invoke the name of Master David Lynch (may peace be upon the name of the prophet) up front in a review, but it bears mentioning that one of Lynch’s rules of creating atmosphere is “shut up and let the scenery do the talking.” After a brief opening narration cutting to a Spaghetti Western prop-store cattle skull, Dark Waters keeps its mouth shut throughout its eight minute prologue, by which time three people have died, while we hang on mute scenes of the rituals surrounding a demonic-looking holy relic. This silence, of course, forces us to refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky (our prayers with confidence are placed in his hands). Cut to 20 years later, and Elizabeth (Louise Salter) is riding the “bus of fools,” and later a rowboat manned by a Charon stand-in, on her way to an island to confront this religious order and find out why her departed father supported it.  The mysterious order is harsh and unwelcoming, and things get scary fast. Great, now we have to name-drop The Wicker Man too. What we’re saying here is, even if Baino doesn’t prove worthy of being honored alongside the weird director greats, he has certainly walked their path.

Anyway, we’re in for the good old-fashioned Gothic interpretation of Catholic (or is it Orthodox?) faith. You bet your sweet bippy there will be spectral nuns chanting in Latin, self-flagellation with snapping whips, and a slow lingering camera pan over a crucifix every other minute (yes, Ken Russel, we thought of you too). The convent is all candlelit and leaky amid a solid movie-long rainstorm, with every color an earth tone as the constant drip of water threatens to snuff out the candles. When Elizabeth flashes her pack of Marlboros here, it’s like an aberration from another universe. Not that the nuns will mind, as most of them are blind, apparently from exposure to the bad mojo on the island. Mother Superior (Mariya Kapnist), seems to get her counsel from these blind, mummy-like nuns while she herself keeps her vision. She assigns Sarah (Venera Simmons) to see to her guest (stuck here because the boat only runs once a week), even while bluntly telling Elizabeth that it’s none of her damn business what the convent does. But we get plenty of hints anyway, from Elizabeth’s nightmares that reel down catacomb corridors lit with enough candles to smoke out Hades, to Elizabeth turning straight to the Book of Revelation to read about the Apocalypse. Elizabeth and Sarah trespass in cavern and attic alike to explore the mystery, but they have to be careful. Blind or not, the nuns will kill to protect their secrets. Of course we have an idea where this is going, but that doesn’t matter, because while the whole plot can be spoiled in two sentences, how we get there is much more important.

For a movie with such a taciturn script, it is a good thing that Dark Waters makes such excellent use of the visual side of the medium. Every frame is composed to etch itself onto your eyeballs, every note of music designed to stretch your last nerve to the breaking point, every ray of light muted into a dramatic chiaroscuro shadow. Burning crosses wielded by nuns stampeding over hills at night cut to horrific drawings of tentacled monstrosities in tomes of ancient lore. It’s so heavy on atmosphere that you don’t watch this movie so much as you lay back and smoke it. If we could pick any bones with Dark Waters, it’s that the film tends to be a little -ish/Dario Argento-like at times, as many shots are there just to gawp at rather than advance the plot. And let’s face it, the story is derivative, equal parts and Italian giallo thrillers, except the nuns here mostly keep their tops on. Waters even invokes The Haunting of Hill House, since Elizabeth is a stranger visiting this strange place while having deep, but inscrutable, connections to it, and having a woman her age as her sole confidant. But the individual details push this effort far above its roots.

This is Mariano Baino’s sole feature length credit, with nothing else to his name but for a few shorts. With this nearly-undiscovered gem for a freshman effort, will we even begin to apprehend what he could do for an encore? It’s been 24 years since Dark Waters came out, so we may never know what else this visionary is capable of.

Dark Waters was re-released by Severin Films on DVD, and for the first time on Blu-ray (sold separately) in 2017. The elaborate edition comes with directorial commentary and hours of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…may not get everything right, but with Elder gods, inbred fishing villages, and a striking visual aesthetic that emphasizes the dark, barely glimpsed corners where evil might well lurk, it comes pretty darn close to catpuring that old Lovecraftian magic on film… the director’s painterly mise-en-scene often reminded me of one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, and his dreamlike, borderline surreal symbolism.”–The Vicar of VHS, Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dark Waters (1993 film) – The film’s entry at Cthulhu-Wiki

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HONOR FARM (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Karen Skloss

FEATURING: Olivia Grace Applegate, Louis Hunter, Katie Folger, , Mackenzie Astin

PLOT: After a disappointing senior prom, Lucy and Annie ditch their dates and join up with a clutch of hearse-driving students who are heading to the haunted prison, the Honor Farm, to take psychedelic mushrooms; Lucy slips in and out of reality as events take alternatingly sinister and joyful turns.

Still from The Honor Farm (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Honor Farm is an unlikely fusion of “teen-coming-of-age” drama and “teens-in-danger” horror. Combined with the rampant symbolism (a prom, a stag, and a donut), things might just be weird enough for us.

COMMENTS: Shroom-chomping teenagers, a dreamy hearse ride, an abandoned prison, and a looming stag adorn the universe of The Honor Farm. This fun mix of ingredients from filmmaker Karen Skloss jumbles together with gusto, emerging as a horror-tinged and symbolism-soaked high school drama. The New Age blood-dream opening sets the ambiguous tone of calm and dissonance that continues throughout the feature.

Waking from a dream at the dentist’s office—a girl does have to have her teeth as white as possible for prom, you know—Lucy (Olivia Applegate) seems all set for the first big night of her adult life. After her beau nearly vomits on her in the back of their rented limo, Lucy and her friend Annie (Katie Folger) run off to a nearby gas station and encounter a group of senior girls in an old red hearse. One City of Women-style ride later, the gaggle of teen ladies arrive at the outskirts of the “Honor Farm”, an old prison with a bad history of brutality. Lucy meets dreamy (and interesting) high school boy J.D. (Louis Hunter), who doles out the mushrooms. After a bout of faux-intellectual philosophizing, teen-style, ambiguous events begin in earnest. Cue the horror music.

Narrative tricks and references abound. When one young woman attempts to channel to a dead boy, J.D. leads Lucy through a tunnel opening in parallel. As we see the tunnel exit collapsed, the ritual, too, is interrupted. We award points both for the arrival of a dentist with laughing gas as well as a vision of a sacrifice victim posing the riddle, “What has no end, beginning, or middle?” Answer? A donut, obviously. And oh yes, Skloss also tucks in faerie ring imagery (mushrooms, again), the goddess Diana-as-Stag spirit guide, and a flaming playing card with a purpose. (This last example could almost be a meta-reference to “The Simpsons” “Twin Peaks” parody: “this suit burns better.”)

Though I may be rambling here, Skloss never does. Those who’ve read my reviews know that I’m a big fan of efficient films. At 77 minutes, The Honor Farm certainly isn’t over-long, but neither does it skimp on narrative and character development. Lucy is at a new place in her life, wanting to “feel something real.” Ironically, it takes unreal experiences to satisfy this craving. The Honor Farm has just the right levels of teen-comedy, scares, myth, and ambiguity to sit well with itself. Kudos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While there are definitely some interesting aspects to The Honor Farm, it often succumbs to a lack of focus, ultimately feeling like a mishmash of five different movies with none of the elements coming together in a truly complimentary way by the end of the film. Skloss offers up a hypnotic coming-of-age tale with shades of horror—there’s some supernatural stuff thrown in, as well as a weird cultish subplot… I just wanted more for Lucy on her journey of self-discovery than what we ultimately get here. The film does offer up some stunning cinematography, particularly during The Honor Farm’s more surreal moments during Lucy’s fantasy…”–Heather Wixson, Daily Dead (SWSX screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: IDAHO TRANSFER (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand

PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.

Still from Idaho Transfer (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.

COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?

With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.

At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.

“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)

Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):

LIST CANDIDATE: TAMPOPO (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jûzô Itami

FEATURING: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, , Fukumi Kuroda

PLOT: A stranger rides into town and helps a struggling widow to master the art of noodle preparation, while peripheral characters enact food-related comic sketches.

Still from Tampopo (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Tampopo‘s parodic tale of noodle shop warfare is almost straightforward, if offbeat. Fortunately, there are enough surreal diversions—a fourth-wall breaking introduction where a gangster lectures the audience about eating too loudly during the movie and scenes exploring the erotic possibilities of live shrimp and egg yolks—to make this one worth a weird watch.

COMMENTS: Few movies can make you as hungry as Tampopo, the savory “noodle Western” (or “Eastern”) about an itinerant truck driver/gourmet who trains a mediocre cook to prepare the world’s greatest bowl of ramen. The main plot lightly parodies Westerns, with the stranger wandering into town to help (and woo) the local attractive widow, complete with showdowns with the local gang—although they battle not with guns, but with cutlery. In between advancing that storyline, the film takes time out for unrelated absurdist sketches revolving around food. (In the first of these, we visit a five star restaurant for a business meal where sycophantic salarymen order the same bland meal as the boss, while in another room a matronly etiquette maven tries in vain to teach young ladies to eat their spaghetti without slurping). The most of memorable of these excursions involves a mysterious yakuza in a white suit, who has kinky gourmet sex in a hotel room with his mistress. Come to think of it, the movie may make you as horny as it does hungry, although the sex is (almost) all done in good taste.

Not that it’s all fluffy, marshmallowy cinema. There are moments here that seem better fitted to a mondo film, such as the killing of a turtle (with one quick slice from a knife inserted under the shell), and the thematically meaningful yet taboo footage that plays while the credits roll. Many people find the egg yolk foreplay more yucky than erotic, while there’s another scene where the yakuza flirts with–and even French kisses—a dangerously underage oyster fisherwoman. These scenes are mildly shocking, although they’re neither mean-spirited nor deployed simply for the sake of shock. They add pungent, R-rated spice to a movie that might otherwise be too sweet and mild; with a few judicious cuts, it’s appropriate for a school-age crowd.

I first saw Tampopo (on VHS) when it came out thirty years ago, and although I had a generally good impression of it, I didn’t remember much beyond the basic premise. I’m surprised that I didn’t recall it as being especially strange or surreal. I found it a more interesting film this time around, which suggests that this may be a movie that takes some life seasoning to appreciate. It’s essentially a silly work, but as a paean to the pleasures of food and sex (and movies), it’s an easy one to champion.

The Criterion Collection released Tampopo on DVD in 2010, then finally upgraded it to Blu-ray this year (2017).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of those utterly original movies that seems to exist in no known category…. the movie is so consumed and detailed, so completely submerged in noodleology, it takes on a kind of weird logic of its own.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “upgrayedd,” who simply said “Tampopo is a weirdo.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)