Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Brian Yuzna

FEATURING: Jeffrey Combs, Jason Barry, Elsa Pataky, Simón Andreu

PLOT: A brilliant young med school graduate gets himself assigned to the institution

Still from Beyond Re-animator (2003)

where Dr. Herbert West is imprisoned so that he can enlist the good doctor’s assistance in continuing his forbidden experiments in reanimating the dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Beyond is a welcome third installment in the Re-Animator saga that continues the series’ tradition of going way over-the-top, but though it’s deranged, nonsensical fun, it’s not even the weirdest entry in its own franchise.

COMMENTS: Fans of the taste-challenged Re-Animator series should be pleased with this charmingly grotesque third sequel, which zips along briskly with a delightful disrespect for logic to a phantasmagorically bloody zombie prison riot finale.  Jeffery Combs, now middle-aged but still looking like a eternally perturbed boy genius, returns as Dr. Herbert West to inject his deadpan wit into the proceedings while the world goes mad around him.  A large part of Dr. West’s mad charisma comes from the fact that he’s constantly sowing seeds of chaos by pushing forward into realms where man was not meant to meddle, then staring at the carnage with a slightly befuddled frown as yet another reanimated corpse unexpectedly turns homicidal.  Obsessed and opportunistic, he’s a nerdy Dr. Frankenstein with an unabashedly amoral streak, who always emerges from his own foul ups unscathed while his unlucky companions end up in the charnel house.  West’s experiments on rats in prison have led him to believe that he can use electricity to restore the souls of re-animated corpses and keep them from killing off the nubile women who always happen to be standing around whenever a new zombie pops up.  This time around, it’s a Doogie Hauser-esque young prison MD who risks everything to help West better the lot of mankind by mixing up a new vat of glowing green reanimation juice, but through a long string of unfortunate occurrences ends up getting kickboxed about the head by a hot zombie dominatrix for his troubles.  Even though this entry aims more for comedy than horror, the atmosphere is eerie: what’s spookier than a half-abandoned post-riot prison, with sounds of massacres echoing in the background while burning toilet paper rolls cast the shadows of iron bars on gray stone walls?  The crazed climax gives us about as many zombie-hyphenates as any reanimated corpse fan could hope for: zombie-rats, zombie-girlfriends, a half-zombie, zombie-vision, zombie-fellatio.  There’s also a pill-popping prisoner who gets hooked on reanimation fluid, leading to the flick’s most bizarre and surreal gag, and a “cockfight” that must be seen to be believed.  All in all, Beyond Re-Animator should leave your lower jaw hanging reasonably close to the ground, which is all we ask for in any movie with “Re-Animator” in the title.

Technically inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, though not at all uncanny, Beyond Re-Animator is set in mythical Arkham, Massachucets.  To get that New England ambiance down perfectly, Yuzna hired a team of regional filmmakers—guys like screenwriter José Manuel Gómez and executive producer Carlos Fernández—guys with mucho dinero, who understand that an authentic Massachusetts prison looks exactly like something you’d find on the outskirts of Barcelona.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…leads to a wonderfully degenerate 30-minute final sequence that involves not only lotsa gore and f/x but also some genuinely surreal visual wit.”–Jonathan Holland, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SCARS OF YOUTH (2008)

DIRECTED BY: John R. Hand

FEATURING: Jeremy Hosbein, Amanda Edington

PLOT: A survivor of the apocalypse is conflicted about his mother, who is addicted to a

Still from Scars of Youth (2008)

black fluid that keeps her eternally young but causes disorientation and scarring.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Scars of Youth is a beautifully lensed film, filled with dreamlike images and montages. Although not impenetrable, the tale comes across mysterious and weird, thanks to the oblique, overwhelmingly visual storytelling. Unfortunately, all this beauty pads a thin and unengaging storyline.

COMMENTSScars of Youth is easy to critique.  It’s visually and sonically entrancing, on its own terms and even more so when you consider the low budget and lack of any special effects.  On the other hand, the story is slow, yet hard to follow, and what we do discern of the tale doesn’t add up to very much.  The audio in some of the necessary background exposition is deliberately distorted in an attempt to create atmosphere that creates frustration instead.  The performances are substandard throughout; the amateur actors can’t convey complex emotions, and the third main character—a sort of adventurer who smuggles immortality fluid past the checkpoints of an unseen civilization to our hero—sports an unnatural laugh that is particularly off-putting.  Almost every scene is drawn out for far too long, with actors staring off into space with melancholy expressions or wandering around state parks, disconsolately staring at wire fences.  These elements of pure mood can’t take the place of dialogue or action.  There is full-frontal nudity to liven things up, but the mother-son incest subtext, intended to provoke, is laid on far too thickly, with sexual symbolism slathered on with so little subtlety that it becomes embarrassing.  On the plus side, the eerie ambient music is a highlight, and the photography is especially beautiful and far more professional than the narrative aspects of the film.  There are beautiful shots of rippling ponds, closeups of bustling ant colonies, sun-dappled forests, and a consistent, painterly eye for color and composition.  Blue filters are used on the interiors in the protagonist’s lonely room, which turn what would otherwise look like a garage with white sheets hung about for walls into something reasonably mystical.  The black and white dream and flashback scenes are crisp and lovely; one brilliantly conceived sequence is grainy and filled with afterimages, as well as some of the film’s loveliest symbolism.  These short, impressionistic moments are where Scars shines; they could fit comfortably as mood pieces inside a major production with more of a story to tell.  They just can’t carry an entire film.

Hand’s earlier film, Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, was a collage-like creation inspired by the visual styles of cheap and crazy 1970s drive-in horror movies. The look, sound and pace of Scars of Youth is, instead, a tribute to Tarkovsky‘s Stalker.  Hand captures the general feel of the Russian minimalist master, but whereas the murky grindhouse visuals of Nightmare made the lack of locations, story and acting talent almost appropriate, the ultra-clean, professionally shot look of Scars of Youth highlights these deficiencies.  Both films contain a few gorgeous images which, if they could be judged in isolation, would earn five star ratings; but, in both films we also get the feeling that we’re watching the work of a brilliant cinematographer and sensualist who has yet to find a meaningful story to tell.  If Hand’s storytelling abilities ever catch up to the level of his technical skills, he’ll become the Stanley Kubrick of homemade videos.

A signed “limited edition” of Scars of Youth can be ordered directly from JRH films for $15.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another successful experimental tweaking of a familiar genre for Hand.”–Mike Everleth, BadLit.com

CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

DIRECTED BYJames Felix McKenney

FEATURING: Don Wood, Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, Debbie Rochon, Michael Berryman, Larry Fessenden

PLOT: In this re-imagining of the “Christ-sploitation” films shown in churches and

Still from Satan Hates You (2009)

probably a few Southern gynecologists’ offices of the 60s and 70s, we follow a young man and woman who make all the wrong choices in a haze of drugs, alcohol, and rock music while unknowingly under the influence of two demonic imps.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Satan Hates You, while initially very jarring in its lack of self-explanation, is a satisfying experience in terms of its Troma-esque shock horror and its acute satirical edge.  But its freaky imagery leans too often on a bland naturalistic style that mars its individuality and chokes the weirdness out of the movie.

COMMENTS: Satan Hates You is a very hard film to place.  Being a satire, a dark comedy, and a horror film is no ordinary pedigree, and Satan Hates You maniacally shifts from one of these genres to the next every few minutes.  It is a wicked send-up of those fear-mongering Christian PSA films that pop into existence every generation about the dangers of doing ungodly things like having abortions and doing drugs.  But it honestly doesn’t hit you that way when you watch it if you don’t do your research.  The first time watching it, I felt this to just be a dark, meandering horror-comedy about two idiots who make a lot of bad choices.  Director James Felix McKenney doesn’t really go out of his way to make this idea pop out at the audience with staples of the “Christ-sploitation” genre, like cheesy acting, an oversimplification of right and wrong, and loads of self-righteous condemnation.  We are instead tossed quite objectively into these people’s lives, full of sex, murder, and self-sabotage, and don’t get dropped many hints that we’re supposed to be in on a joke.

Once one understands the idea, everything falls into place a little more, and it does Continue reading CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker

PLOT: 300 years in the future, an ex-special ops agent turned taxi driver must collect four stones and discover the fifth element to stop the universe from being destroyed by evil, with the help of a scantily-clad supreme being.

Still from The Fifth Element (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Fifth Element is unique and has its devoted fans, but although it’s much busier and more colorful than the average Hollywood space opera, in the end, it’s not so much weird as simply chaotic and overstuffed.

COMMENTS: You can probably gauge your tolerance for The Fifth Element according to your tolerance for antic comedian Chris Tucker and his amphetaminic falsetto.  Although he’s not a major player in the story, for better or worse his blond, over-coiffed, simpering talk-show diva dominates every scene he’s in, and is emblematic of the grotesquely overdrawn elements that populate Besson’s world.  Furthermore, his unnecessary presence is introduced through a senseless plot contrivance (the idea that this Oprah-on-a-galactic-scale pop icon would be obsessed with building a broadcast around a non-celebrity contest winner), which is itself symbolic of the way the script seizes any opportunity to shoehorn in any idea that occurs to it.  A few of those ideas include a future New York City grown up to the sky and jam packed with flying cars, Milla Jovovivh as a cloned carrot-haired “supreme being” wrapped in a tiny ace bandage, and Gary Oldman as a villainous comic-relief corporate honcho with a southern accent and a dedicated phone line to receive important calls from Ultimate Evil.  It’s insanely baroque, and the craziness itself is the glue that holds it together even as the wild story makes only a token gesture at sense, relying instead on the viewer to fill in the gaps through their familiarity with conventions of other blockbuster “save the universe” sci-fi epics.  Although it starts out looking like a Die Hard/Raiders of the Lost Ark hybrid set in space, at approximately one hour in comic relief completely hijacks the movie when Oldman’s Zorg threatening meeting with a high priest ends with him choking on a cherry and frantically punching buttons for random automated tasks on his desk.  The comedy never looks back, and this reliance on humor is the film’s ultimate downfall, because it is not very funny.  It’s filled with characters comically fainting, or being shut inside a collapsible refrigerator as Bruce Willis frantically tries to entertain multiple guests in his shabby apartment, or Chris Tucker delivering yet another incomprehensibly high-pitched monologue.  The movie is messy as hell, bouncing back and forth from action to comedy to spectacle to apocalyptic mythology with an eight-year-old kid’s enthusiasm and attention span, and that lack of focus may make the movie come off as mildly weird to those used to more disciplined Hollywood epics.  The Fifth Element has one thing unconditionally in its favor: the costume and set design is masterful, keeping the eye busy and delighted even while the mind wanders off the plot.  The background characters are all so punked out that the few clean cut authority figures stand out as the weirdos.  Although The Fifth Element is a cult movie some people treasure precisely because of its idiosyncratic flaws, which make it unlike any other would-be blockbuster, I can’t count myself among them.

With it’s overwhelmingly American cast and genre, there’s little that’s distinctively French about this movie except its director, Luc Besson, who had previously scored arthouse and critical successes with the stylish La Femme Nikkita (1990) and Leon [The Professional] (1994).  Nonetheless, it was the most expensive French made film to date, surpassing the great weird fantasy The City of Lost Children [La cité des enfants perdus].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the great goofy movies–a film so preposterous I wasn’t surprised to discover it was written by a teenage boy. That boy grew up to become Luc Besson, director of good smaller movies and bizarre big ones, and here he’s spent $90 million to create sights so remarkable they really ought to be seen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Cannes premiere)

CAPSULE: THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Jackson

FEATURING: Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, , Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon

PLOT: A murdered 14-year old girl watches her family search for her killer from the afterlife.

Still from The Lovely Bones (2009)

 

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are a few weird visual elements in Susie’s pleasant and candy-colored Purgatory, but The Lovely Bones tells a conventional, if unusual, story at heart.

COMMENTS:  With its mix of fantasy, drama, teen girls and murder, Peter Jackson’s latest superficially hearkens back to his wonderful Heavenly Creatures (1994); but the originality and intensity of that early vision is gone now, replaced by Hollywood sentimentality.  The Lovely Bones is ambitious in its attempt to juggle many mixed tones, but it can’t quite navigate the tricky terrain from tragedy to mystery to reconciliation while shoehorning in comedy (a nicely campy but unnecessary turn by Susan Sarandon as a hard-drinking granny) and Hollywood spectacle.  There some memorable fantasy images, such as a fleet of bottled ships crashing onto rocks, but for the most part the heavenly landscapes Jackson imagines are appealing and picture-postcard pretty, but uninvolving; Susie’s heaven seems like it’s been designed by Terry Gilliam reincarnated as a tween girl.  As a thriller, the movie fails.  We know from the beginning who the killer is, so our only interest is in seeing how he will slip up and be discovered.  No clues are provided that would allow the Susie’s surviving family to out him, however; the revelation comes through supernatural nudging from beyond the grave that feels a lot like cheating.  At a key moment, the movie abruptly stops being a thriller—just as excitement should be peaking—to return to exploring family dynamics.  It’s a misstep that’s revealing of the difficulty the movie has shifting gears.  The ending is cloying; the murder victims gather on the Elysian fields to sing a contemporary pop-music version of “Kumbaya,” followed by Susie’s unlikely return to earth to take care of unfinished business solely of interest to teen girls.  The ending is also a cheat, preaching reconciliation and forgiveness while giving the audience a vicarious form of justice that falls flat.  The Lovely Bones is not all bad: the performances are excellent, particularly Tucci’s subtle turn as the monster next door who appears to be just slightly odd, and young Saoirse Ronan, who generates tremendous empathy as the victim.  There are some heart-tugging scenes, some suspenseful scenes, and some heavenesque eye candy to stare at.  Jackson shows tact in not dwelling on the crude facts of the rape-murder, revealing the horror instead with an impressionistic and disquieting, unreal sequence set in a bare bathroom (a minimalist scene that’s a lot more effective than the garish paradises on which he lavishes his CGI budget).  But, overall the movie reinforces Jackson’s inconsistency rather than his genius—he has yet to sniff a return to the grandiose triumph of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, while simultaneously he’s lost the punkish grit of his pre-fame films like Dead-Alive.

The Lovely Bones was based on a much-beloved novel by Alice Sebold, and, as is usually the case, fans of the book (including most critics who also read the original) aren’t thrilled with the film adaptation, saying that a subtle reflection on grief and living has been reduced to little more than a supernatural potboiler.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Other elements, including ‘The Lovely Bones’ imaginative notion of what Susie’s afterlife looks like, are strong, but everything that’s good is undermined by an overemphasis on one part of the story that is essential but has been allowed to overflow its boundaries.  That would be the film’s decision to foreground its weirdest, creepiest, most shocking elements, starting with the decision to give a much more prominent role to murderer George Harvey.”–Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

CAPSULE: FRANKENSTEINS BLOODY NIGHTMARE (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: John R. Hand, Amy Olivastro

PLOT: A scientist—or perhaps his monster, it’s never quite clear—kills women to harvest their body parts so the doctor can resurrect his dead love.

Still from Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Missing apostrophe aside, there’s lots to admire about Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, though not as much to love. Director Hand shows a remarkable technical ability to create unique visual and auditory environments inspired by the 1970s trash movies of , , and , but with their cheap, desperate Super-8 stylistics exaggerated to surreal levels. The problem is that, for all its technical ingenuity, the movie has no story to tell, which will cause the average viewer to lose interest quickly.

COMMENTS: Frankensteins flesh may be recycled out of various parts snatched from grindhouse graveyards, but its heart was taken straight from the arthouse. One man show John R. Hand (writer/director/editor/composer/star) obviously watched a lot of 1970s horror cheapies growing up, and (like us) he was clearly more impressed by the mysterious artificial ambiances created by grainy film stock and heavy use of theremins, oscillators and other weird sci-fi audio effects than he was by the nudity and gore those drive-in auteurs depended on to sell tickets. Nightmare strips away the exploitation elements from these flicks (bloody it ain’t), adopting only the bare outline of a mad scientist story. It then seizes the distressed visuals and shaky audio that remains, and amplifies these leftovers to psychedelic levels. Hand himself is too boyish looking to convey the soul of a tortured scientist, and his acting is no better than the rest of the amateurs in the film. Given the intent is to mimic an exploitation film, this might not detract too much from the atmosphere, had there just been enough story and action to keep the viewer engaged. Dialogue is sometimes muffled and inaudible, making a difficult-to-follow story nearly impossible. It’s a bizarre experience to feel lost inside a the plot of a movie where almost nothing is happening onscreen.

Stylistically, on the other hand, there’s always something going on. The opening mixes grainy home-video style footage with bright, solarized footage depicting a pitchfork assault; strange whines, moans, blips, and electronic drones assault our ears, building to a dissonant crescendo. The film changes style every five minutes or so, as we tour Hand’s portfolio of foggy lenses, overexposed film, desaturated colors, psychedelic color filters, thermal imaging, a  psycho-sexual dream sequence, all accompanied by a disquieting soundtrack of distorted Moog organs and overdubbed tape effects. The penultimate scene in the film contains an absolutely beautiful effect where the autumn landscape, then an actress’ face, magically and organically melt into abstract blobs of orange and gold and purple (the director’s commentary reveals the cheap and ingenious method by which it was achieved: household bleach on still photographs).

Overall, Nightmare is a worthy experiment that’s successful in short stretches, but could have used a lot more story. A few bare boobs and a pint or two of gooey stage blood, the key elements this film’s inspirations never would have left out, would also have livened things up.

I can see why would give Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare an honorable mention on his top 10 weird movies list. Depending as it does on discount techniques for creating striking moods, this is a movie that can almost serve as a textbook to Hand’s fellow micro-budget filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a wild cocktail of nightmarish sensibilities; its death nerve twitches to a disquieting mish-mash of strange images and even stranger sounds… The story is bootleg but Hand’s head-trippy dissolving of consciousness is something fierce, inviting repeat viewings with a joint in hand.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: AUTOMATONS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: James Felix McKenny

FEATURING: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm

PLOT: The lone survivor of a devastated nation lives in an underground bunker; her only companions are the voice recordings of a long-dead scientist and the robots she sends out to do battle with the enemy on the planet’s poisoned surface.

Still from Automatons (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the underground hype regarding this 2006 indie from James Felix McKenny and Glass Eye Pix likens Automatons to a cross between Eraserhead and Ed Wood, with Guy Maddin‘s name bandied about for good measure. There is nothing remotely arthouse or surreal about Atomatons, however, and the only identifying aesthetic McKenney might share with Maddin is an obsessive love of a genre. Maddin’s love of baroque silent film expressiveness hardly compares to McKenney’s hard-on for 1950’s sci-fi kitsch. That’s the problem with hype; it usually tends to be a disservice, and is so here.

COMMENTS: Automatons is not weird or surreal. That is not to say it does not have merit or is a film without interest. Is it a thought-provoking, intelligent film, worth comparing to some of the better, more compact Outer Limits episodes? No. The post-apocalyptic scenario of a lone survivor is a really, really old one that has been around since Robot Monster (1953) and is repeated in Omega Man, Mad Max and countless movies.

The robots themselves look like they just stepped out of an old “Superman” TV episode, but without the awkwardly quirky personality of those 50s tintypes. Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) is the professor who instructs heroine Christine Spencer through a series of pre-recorded videos. The biggest problem here lies in Spencer’s flat acting, which fails to project the necessary charisma needed in this type of project.

Where Automatons takes an admirable independent risk is in its lethargic pacing, which, despite the plot and acting, creates a hypnotic milieu. Long, static takes, along with the much repeated Scrimm transmissions, are, at first, odd, then oddly compelling. This is the one surprising, indeed endearing quality about Automatons.  It refuses to cater to commercial pacing. Some mistake that for an arthouse quality or made predictable, banal comparisons, such as that to Eraserhead. Automatons does not possess that organic, wistful Lynch quality. It is grounded in the love of its genre. The later battle scenes and the gruesome deaths have a certain grainy style derived from its 8 mm source, but this is an often utilized stylistic ploy in genre indies, and is not what gives Automatons its original flavor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Automatons is what happens when Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Iron Man bong themselves into oblivion and collaborate on a minimalist avant-garde sci-fi cheapie shot in a toolshed… Robot radness acheived!”–Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BUG (2006)

DIRECTED BY: William Friedkin

FEATURING: Ashley Judd, , Harry Connick Jr.

PLOT: A lonely and none-too-bright waitress with a tragic past and an abusive ex-con ex-husband takes up with a mysterious man who is convinced that their ramshackle motel room is infested by bugs.

Still from Bug (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Bug is a well-acted, claustrophobic and dramatic exploration of paranoia that’s worth catching, but the mildly insane third act isn’t quite mad enough to get the movie involuntarily committed as one of the weirdest of all time.

COMMENTS: If you’re into paranoid delusion as entertainment, Bug is a must-see; if you’re not, it’s still worth a watch for its oft-clever script, excellent performances (especially Ashley Judd’s tragic white-trash turn), and uneven but whacked-out finale. Bug‘s origins as a stage play are always apparent—it plays out almost completely inside a dingy weekly-rate motel room that represents the protagonists sealed-off psyches—so don’t expect to get much fresh air or wide-open vistas. It’s slow-building, but always intense and claustrophobic, and the unrelieved tension may weary you after a while.

One things for sure: it’s an actor’s movie. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon get the lion’s share of the lines, while the supporting characters—led by a buff, slick and abusive Harry Connick, Jr. as an abusive ex—present a layer of seediness in the external world that suggest fantastical escapism, however skewed, might be preferable to harsh reality. Shannon, who enters the scene as a mysterious stranger, conveys the fact that something is “off” about his character from the get-go merely through his disconcerting calmness and odd cadences (which lead to increasingly odd monologues). Shannon’s Peter is too alien for us to identify with, though, so all our empathy naturally flows to Judd’s Agnes, who may not be the brightest bulb in the marquee but who surely doesn’t deserve the misfortunes that fate has visited on her. Judd does a bang-up job, redeeming herself after a number of forgettable performances; she succeeds by projecting a hollow loneliness that sells her character’s improbable descent into madness as the only sane option open to her. Her line “I’d rather talk to you about bugs than nobody about nothin'” tells you all you most of what you need to know about her character; her often repeated “I don’t understand” tells you the rest.

Judd and Shannon begin an unlikely and desperate romance that’s hampered by an apparent infestation of tiny bugs in their mattress.  Bug strips and microscopes start to multiply in the tiny hovel as Peter’s obsession grows, but things don’t get truly weird until the odd couple line the walls with tinfoil to garble the CIA’s incoming (or outgoing) radio transmissions. By the time an unnaturally smug psychiatrist suddenly arrives looking for Peter, pausing in his attempt to convince Agnes to turn over the escapee to take a bong hit, we’re can no longer be certain whether we’re seeing events through a camera’s objective lens, or whether we’re watching Agnes’ version of reality, which as is distorted as the light cast by the blue-bug zappers bouncing off the foil-crinkled walls of the motel room. The finale is intense, verging on overwrought, and inevitably a downer. Tonally out-of-place blood and scenes of gruesome home dentistry seem inserted to fulfill a contractual gore quota set by distributor Lionsgate so they could market Bug as a horror film. It’s not, unless you’re horrified by the mind’s ability to skew reality to salvage some kind of emotional sense out of an impossibly cruel world.

Tracy Letts adapted the screenplay from his own off-Broadway play. Shannon originated the role of Peter onstage.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The shift in tone — reflected in the ever more panicky language, the anti-insect redecoration of the room and the gruesomeness of the violence — takes us from what begins as a grim, familiar drama into something much weirder. By the end, you wonder if you’re not hallucinating too… the creepiness of it gets under your skin. But ‘Bug’s’ relentless unpleasantness, which Friedkin bogs us down in instead of crystallizing it into what might have been a stylish head trip, can get to be a chore.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966)

DIRECTED BY:  J. Lee Thompson

FEATURING:  Sharon Tate, , David Niven, , Flora Robson

PLOT: A happy marriage descends into an odyssey of terror when a woman’s husband is called to his ancestral estate by pagan heretics.

Still from Eye of the Devil (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Eye of the Devil tells a strange story, the occult  genre always spins an unusual yarn. In this context, strange is normal. Aside from being well produced, Eye of the Devil is noteworthy only because it debuts the doomed Sharon Tate.

COMMENTS: Vineyard owner Marquis Philippe de Montfaucon (Niven) is called back to his castle when a drought withers the crop, upon which the entire region depends. His wife and children are supposed to remain in London, but of course she becomes curious and is compelled to intrude. Catherine de Montfaucon (Deborah Kerr) subsequently discovers that her husband is behaving in a secretive and peculiar manner. His personality has undergone a distinct change and he seems dreadfully grim and preoccupied. Why?

There are many mysterious comings and goings, some heavyweight clergy are milling around who appear to be legitimate, but why are the Marquis’ young cousins shooting medieval arrows at her, casting spells on her children, and trying to hypnotize her into leaping off of the castle parapets? And who the devil are those troublesome dark characters in black Franciscan monk’s robes, chasing Catherine about in the deep dark woods?

As Catherine snoops, she discovers mounting evidence of heretical pagan practices and that an extraordinary number of the Marquis’ antecedents met untimely deaths. Could there be a relation between the deaths and some profound event that her husband seems to be preparing for?

Flora Robson (The Shuttered Room) is creepy and aloof as always in her role as the Marquis’ Aunt.  Sharon Tate (in her film debut) plays a sinister and threatening witch who turns frogs into doves and seems to perversely enjoy taking a good old fashioned horse whipping from the Marquis. (Blow-up, Juggernaut) cavorts as her delightfully menacing, archery-happy brother. Eye of the Devil features crisp, striking, artful black and white cinematography by Erwin Hillier.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kerr is our only touch with reality, and she tries to carry the pic, to little avail.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: NINE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rob Marshall

FEATURING: Daniel Day-Lewis, Stacy Ferguson (“Fergie”), , , Judi Dench, Sophia Loren

PLOT: Celebrity director Guido Contini finds he can’t get started on his latest movie script because the women he’s romantically entangled with keep bursting into song whenever he’s around.

Still from Nine (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Musicals, by their very nature, are a little weird, because in everyday life people very rarely ask you for the time in the key of A-flat minor. The musical genre traditionally atones for the sin of departing from reality by doubling over backwards to be reassuringly conventional in narrative and thoughtlessly blithe in message. Nine is no exception to the general rule; we only cover it here because it was inspired loosely by the great weird film 8 1/2 and it’s fascinating director, .

COMMENTS: First things first: Nine, while inspired by Fellini’s 8 1/2, is obviously aimed at those who never saw the original film, or who saw it but didn’t like it much. Keeping that in mind off the bat makes the film feel much less like an insult to the maestro’s memory, and much more like what it is: a highly fictionalized puff piece that aims solely to entertain, while presenting the artist’s struggle to create as just another two-dimensional backdrop for the song-and-dance spectaculars. Except that these songs and dances are not really spectacular, so much as acceptable. The tableaux—which range from minimalist tinker-toy girders to a sequined Folies Bergère nightclub to a fashion runway strobe-lit by paparazzi flashes (the irony!)—are all flashy, pretty and eye-catching enough. The problem is that it would be, for the most part, an act of charity to describe the melodies as memorable, so that most of the numbers come across as all sparkle and no spark. The one exception is provided by Stacy Ferguson (better known as Fergie). Putting the only professional singer in the cast together with the movie’s only hummable melody (“Be Italian”) is an eggs-in-all-one-basket strategy that gives audiences something to remember, but also highlights the mediocrity of the rest of the musical performances.

As for the rest of the star-studded female cast, none can really sing or dance, and there is an unrelenting sameness to their lyrics (which are mostly about how each dame would rather be sleeping with Daniel Day-Lewis than doing whatever she’s doing now). At some point the musical numbers become numbing interruptions that make the melodrama interesting by comparison. Day-Lewis’ Italian accent is passable and he does invest his Guido with a charming childlike quality that almost makes his irresistibility to women believable; but, though he’s game enough, he just can’t carry a tune, and having him half-sing/half-talk through the climactic songs is no solution. Still, the razzle-dazzle of the production numbers, numerous cameos (i.e., Sophia Loren) and Fellini references, Fergie’s musical triumph, and a vampy song by Cruz—whose lingerie-clad tramp around a mirrored floor while wrapping pink ropes around her willowy frame is sultry enough to make her song and dance talents irrelevant—are enough to transform Nine into passable, if forgettable, entertainment. Plus, it features more corsets and fishnet stockings per minute than you’ll see outside of a fetish video, which can hardly be considered a bad thing.

Nine isn’t really inspired so much by 8 1/2 as it’s inspired by the most famous scene of 8 1/2, the harem/lion tamer sequence, where Guido famously envisions himself as being adored, then harried, by the various females in his life. The fact that the movie’s psychology ignores all other aspects of the director’s creativity and inner artistic torments in favor of the reductionist “it’s all because he’s conflicted about his unrealistic image of women” is disappointing, but hardly surprising considering this is squarely middlebrow Hollywood stuff. After all, what else would you expect from a movie whose title announces its intentions by rounding up an inconveniently weird partial number to a nice, easily digestible integer?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The challenge for Marshall, following his Oscar-winning Chicago, was to bring another hallucinatory musical to the screen without repeating himself or dimming the material’s blazing, untamed theatricality. By my score card, Marshall hits more than he misses.”–Peter Travers, Rolling Stone