Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: THIRST (1979)

DIRECTED BY: Rod Hardy

FEATURING: Chantal Contouri, Shirley Cameron, Max Phipps, Henry Silva, Rod Mullinar

PLOT: A direct descendant of Elizabeth Bathory is kidnapped by vampires who want to make her one of their own.

Still from Thirst (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Thirst has an offbeat plot for a vampire movie, it doesn’t go that extra mile to make itself stick out from the bloodsucking crowd.

COMMENTS: All that charming and wealthy Kate Davis (Contouri) wants to do is live happily ever after with her handsome boyfriend.  Unfortunately, unbeknown to her, she is a direct lineal descendant of Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  You remember Liz, she was that Hungarian rich chick who drank and bathed in 600 or more gallons of blood from 600 or more beautiful young women in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s.

I might mention that Liz Bathory also sodomized the comely maidens first, then partially ate some of them alive, before torturing and murdering them and drinking, bathing, and masturbating in their blood.  But then gee golly gosh, what’s a bored aristocratic gal supposed to do for fun in the darned old dark and dusty 1500’s anyway?

So it turns out that there are 70,000 well networked, politically powerful vampires in the modern world, and some of them come from equally distinguished aristocratic families.  Unfortunately for poor Kate, a member of one wants to marry her, and probably do a few other things to her that we won’t go into here; suffice it to say that the hapless and desirable Kate is snatched away to a vampire “resort.” While there, she will become indoctrinated into vampire culture, get hitched, and.. and well, I suspect “get” other things as well, seeing as how her vamp suitor has been watching surreptitiously-filmed home movies of Kate getting her groove worked over by her boyfriend.

The resort also happens to be a human blood farm.  Kidnapped, tranquilized mortals are put out to pasture and herded in a couple of times a week to be “milked” for, you guessed it, rich, red, raw human blood!  They are referred to as “blood cows,” and they are drained of a pint or so each time via the latest technology in a huge row of sanitary stalls.  They don’t appear to be very happy about it either, but then that’s a good incentive to unionize.

The vampires hook a “direct-to-line vacuum pulsator” (dairy speak for the milking machine hose terminal that is supposed to fit around a cow’s udder) right into the helpless humans’ jugulars.  They then suck, pump, filter, pasteurize, homogenize, inspect and certify the blood as safe, just like at a real dairy (hey, vampires have a right to protect themselves from hepatitis too, you know).

Then, presto. They distribute the human Clamato juice world-wide in conventional milk cartons.  Makes you thirsty just thinking about it, huh?  It turns out that the facility gives consumer tours and everything.  It also has some nice amenities such as swimming pools, racket ball courts, and booze kiosks (vamps only!)  Unfortunately for Kate, since she’s on a special diet, the program for her consists of involuntary drug-induced hallucinations, coercive brainwashing and blood force-feeding, just to get her in the mood for her wedding night.

It works!  Well, sort of.  The problem is that the plan, like most in these hemoglobin flicks, doesn’t go very smoothly.  In fact after some initial difficulties, then apparent success, it blows up right in everyone’s faces with gruesome and disturbing results.  This is a solid Australian film and one of the best vampire movies from the 1970’s that I have seen so far.  If you like odd and twisted cinema, or hot and heavy bloodsucking action, I give it four and half stakes through the heart out of five.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the quirkier horror films in recent history… The movie comes off as one long dream sequence (which it is, as Kate goes through a long programming session) — it’s mood music for the eyes, and bloody music at that.”–Christopher Null, AMC Film Critic (DVD)

CAPSULE: KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Chiodo

FEATURING: Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, John Allen Nelson,

PLOT: Aliens from outer space, who look exactly like circus clowns, land their carnival-tent spacecraft near a rural town and begin abducting humans for unknown purposes.

Still from Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Killer Klowns is actually a very conventional spoof with an unusual gimmick that’s well-executed; it’s a bit offbeat, but as far as weird goes, it’s strictly entry level stuff.

COMMENTS: Although Killer Klown‘s kultists will doubtlessly be offended, this movie is gimmicky, rather than original. It’s a shameless retread of the old aliens-invade-the-earth-and-interrupt-teen-makeout-sessions plot with killer clowns substituting for a killer blob. Every standard plot cliche is squarely parodied, right down to the drunken coot who thinks the landing spacecraft is a shooting star and the fact that the cops assume the teen witnesses are pulling a prank. Switching out one-eyed scaly monsters for clowns is nothing but a gimmick, but it’s a good one, and it makes this formulaic exercise watchable. The movie is so stuffed with circus gags that just when you’re certain the script has run out, a new one emerges, like yet another harlequin squeezing out of an impossibly tiny car. Popcorn, cotton candy, balloon animals, shadow puppets, and banana creme pies all become implements of doom that threaten humanity’s very existence. These jokes should be enough to keep you reasonably entertained, but the costume and set design will vie for your attention.  The garish, oversized grinning clown heads evoke a campy coulrophobia. The interior of the big-top mothership is a candy-colored wonderland, with skewed funhouse sets that are even vaguely reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (and the eye-searingly bright colors and low-tech ingenuity anticipate the following year’s Dr. Caligari ). It’s also fun to see veteran character actor John Vernon ham it up as the crotchety kid-hating cop. All in all, it’s nothing earthshattering, but it’s a good time if your in the mood for a light, lightly bizarre comedy.

This film has a very powerful cult following, with Killer Klowns t-shirts and paraphernalia selling briskly to this day. I admit, I can’t quite understand why its fans show such a depth of devotion to this likable but lightweight flick. It might have to do with the fact that many people first see this movie when they are young and impressionable, when the concept of a comedy involving evil space clowns seems shockingly original and even subversive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This krazy, kooky movie strings together the creature feature with the alien movie, and pumps it full of dark humour, using that icon of innocent fun, the clown… Patchy but mostly fun, the basic clowns/circus/theme park-like fun idea is expanded as far as possible and worked to death…”–Andrew L. Urban, Urbancinefile.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: COLD SOULS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Barthes

FEATURING: , Dina Korzun, David Strathairn

PLOT: Paul Giamatti (playing himself) feels burdened by his soul, so he utilizes the services of a company that specializes in soul removal and storage; when he decides to reclaim it from its safe deposit box, he finds there’s a problem…

Still from Cold Souls (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCold Souls is an excellent little movie, but it pitches its tent a few yards outside the boundaries of Weird City.  It posits its impossible philosophic premise as a scientific fact, and develops a strangely believable set of consequences from it.  It’s magical realism that’s heavy on the realism but light on the magic; a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, and one that works well here, but a choice that should prevent it from making the List. A brief peek inside the (rather blurry) corridors of Giamatti’s soul isn’t enough to smuggle it across the weird border.

COMMENTSCold Souls has three things going for it: an intriguing concept, a great sense of humor, and Paul Giamatti. Writer/director Barthes doesn’t have anything new or profound to say about the human soul—her theme is limited to the idea that it has something to do with suffering, and the fact that we’re less human if we lose it—but what new or profound is likely to be said about the nebulous, millennia old concept of soul? Instead, she wisely focuses on creating an elaborate medical mythology of the soulectomy, and builds a fascinating plot by exploring those soul mechanics. We get such concepts as soul residues, the black market soul trade (dominated by those masters of soul, the Russians, natch), and soul mules, people who implant the souls of others inside themselves to smuggle them across international borders. The jokes arise naturally from the set of rules Barthes devises: human essences manifest themselves physically in a variety of shapes, including jellybeans and chickpeas, sometimes to their owners’ dismay.  It’s gratifying to find laugh-out-loud funny lines in this film, since the intellectual concept could easily have limited the humor to being merely sly, witty, and clever.

Deadpan David Strathairn, as a satirically practical plastic surgeon of the psyche, sets up some of the best gags, such as the idea that removed souls can be warehoused in New Jersey to save on state sales tax. But most of the humor and pathos come from the performance of Giamatti, who plays both a soulful and a soulless role; he’s funny when troubled, and troubling once his cares are removed. Giamatti puts his own twist on the smart, neurotic Woody Allen type, but conveys plenty of genuine existential melancholy as well. As an actor playing an actor (his painful emotional over-involvement in playing the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” sets the plot in motion), he truly tests his range. It’s quite a challenge for a polished actor to portray a bad thespian, and Giamatti gets to showcase two failed Vanyas: one that’s subtly off because he’s too depressed, and one that is a complete, farcical burlesque. With the range he shows here, Giamatti merits Oscar notice. On the negative side, one could criticize the flat ending, which is not ambiguous so much as inconclusive, and the fact that the obvious similarities to Being John Malkovich tempt unflattering comparisons. Cold Souls is still a rewarding watch, a smart movie that avoids pretension and delivers solid chuckles.

Eric Young‘s alternate take: it should be borderline weird, at leastCold Souls is a weird movie in the same way that Southland Tales is weird, except that it’s not horrible. It has that paranoid misgiving about the future that begs to be analyzed like a cinematic psychological disorder. There’s something definitely weird about the world that surrounds Paul Giamatti here: it’s foreign, it’s vaguely (and at times obviously) threatening, and it fuels a very strong, underlying neurosis in Paul. Sophie Barthes’ odd cinematic landscape was not the best place for him to go and get something as emotionally and philosophically ponderous as a soul removal, I believe.

Cold Souls is one of the weirder films I’ve seen in 2009, a year soundly devoid of anything resembling true weirdness a la (or , if you’re feeling frisky). It seems the indie circuit has taken the ideas brought forth by the cinematic pioneers of oddities from yesteryear and used them to fit their own kitschy agenda. This new breed write bizarre movies without really bringing much attention to the deformed elephant they’ve written into the room: see Growing Out, as well as flicks like ‘s Fur and, to a lesser extent, Wristcutters. Their efforts have been of dubious quality, for the most part, as most indie directors are a little too insistent on navel gazing to examine the strangeness in their midst, but Cold Souls has something different about it. It’s a well-made movie with a star in his prime that has its priorities lined up, and while existential ponderings by resident schlub Giamatti are priority numero uno, introducing us to the fascinatingly bizarre world of illegal Russian soul trafficking and all the unusual characters involved is pretty high on the list, much to the delight of anyone who’s willing to try something different and new.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s the kind of thing that could easily be played as zany, cockeyed weirdness – but Barthes… wisely keeps the temperature pretty cool throughout. Exploring bizarre concepts, characters and situations with a deadpan matter-of-factness results in a likeably offbeat affair that’s frequently funny and occasionally hilarious, thankfully avoiding the self-consciousness and clever-clever, overcooked feel that marred Charlie Kaufman’s recent, not-so-dissimilar Synecdoche, New York.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOUSEKEEPING (1987)

DIRECTED BY: William Forsyth

FEATURING: Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill

PLOT: Two orphaned girls are joined by their transient aunt who becomes their guardian in this dreamy, pensive study of nonconformity and the breaking of social mores in a restrictive 1950’s environment.

Housekeeping

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Housekeeping has an original plot about unusual characters doing unusual things, it is not truly weird.   If anything, the entire point of the movie is to illustrate that what many consider odd is perfectly normal, depending on the angle of interpretation.

COMMENTS: Housekeeping is a surreal atmosphere piece that questions right and wrong, debates the meaning of normality, and examines the consequences of non-conformity. The story follows the erratic behavior of two teenage girls and their seemingly irresponsible caretaker.

In the 1950’s Pacific Northwest, a series of bizarre events unfold, leading to the abandonment of two adolescent girls. In a dramatic early scene, the girls’ misfit mother asks some young boys for help in getting her car out of a muddy rut. When they do, she casually commits suicide in front of them by driving over a cliff. Her daughters, long abandoned by their father, become the wards of their grandmother and aunt, who see them into their early teens. When the deceased mother’s sister shows up, the grandmother and great aunt disappear into the night, leaving them in the care of the newly arrived “Aunt Sylvie” (Lahti).

Sylvie, as it turns out, is an avowed nonconformist with an unconventional lifestyle and unique view of the world. Her permissive parenting enables an alternative existence for her nieces. This new freedom includes skipping school, stealing boats, riding the rails, and other risky, unstructured behavior: acts which are particularly outré when performed by young women in the conservative 1950s.

The film is an odyssey of self discovery as Ruth, from whose point of view the story is presented, begins to question social convention and accepted folkways. As Ruth gravitates toward Sylvie’s atypical values, her sister Lucille is upset by the lack of structure and begins to embrace social norms.

The film presents this evolution of the girls’ characters and personalities through a series of ethereal misadventures and explorations. This transition is further influenced by the recounting of early childhood impressions, and their observations of the unique geography of their home, which is located on a surreal lake surrounded by wooded mountains. Ice and snow symbolism connects different story segments, along with railroads and trains, particularly a spectacular derailment disaster that occurred many years in the past. The lake itself, a massive body of deep cold water holding the wreckage and bodies from the doomed train, embodies concepts of obstacles, boundaries, mystery and the transcendence of space and time.

Ultimately, and inevitably, outside authoritarian interference descends upon the trio; the tale alludes to fear of witches by the unsophisticated locals. Nonconformity is equated with a dread of the unknown. At this point, the slowly building tension between the girls’ independence and the mainstream establishment comes to a rolling boil. The three must choose between two extremes, either one of which will create dramatic and permanent consequences.

Some credit Housekeeping with exploring themes concerning transience, self reliance, dependency, female marginalization, and freedom. This may be true, but the literary eye rollers —that crowd who seek to distinguish themselves intellectually via the discovery of a plethora of symbolism, real or imaginary, in any work—are likely to perceive Housekeeping as an exploration of feminist issues. This would not be the best interpretation of the story. Housekeeping is not a women’s movie. It is a beautifully photographed, thought-provoking atmospheric fantasy about unconventionality and its consequences. The events are experienced from the point of view of a youngster who happens to be a girl. The choice of gender serves more to facilitate this study of social taboos than to make any sort of statement. Those who wish to interpret Housekeeping as being a feminist vehicle will miss the nebula for the stars.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

one of the strangest and best films of the year… not a realistic movie, not one of those disease-of-the-week docudramas with a tidy solution. It is funnier, more offbeat, and too enchanting to ever qualify on those terms.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GROWING OUT (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Ratliff

FEATURING: Devon Lott, Ryan Sterling, Michael Hampton

PLOT: An aimless musician gets a job cleaning up an old William Castle-style spooky mansion. In the basement he finds a hand emerging out of the floor, and the longer he works there, the more he watches the mysterious person appear from below…

photo_22_hires

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Normally, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why a man slowly rising out of the sandy floor of a scary old basement isn’t weird, but if we’re going to count down the WEIRDEST movies of all time, this really doesn’t scratch the surface. It’s a guy-meets-girl movie with a few Lynchian twists thrown in, and that’s really not enough to hang with the big boys, now is it?

COMMENTS: Perhaps a penetrating metaphor for the encroaching distance that separates our true selves from our public personas, or perhaps a cheap, quick flick about freaky shenanigans in a creaky old house, Growing Out is a movie that tries to reach out and grab a very particular audience, specifically the indie horror crowd, and it does this with a gusto that is atypical of independent features like this. And, for what it is, it’s indeed enjoyable. It’s quite thrilling to see a young director and cast just go for it—even though the results aren’t all that spectacular, their enthusiasm is in itself kind of spectacular. The film looks good, the actors—in particular, the peripheral characters—are a lot of fun to keep track of, and the scenario is rife with possibilities. The problem it faces as a weird movie, though, is that it places a lot of limiters on itself. It wants to be a relationship movie so badly, with the usual current-jerk-boyfriend-in-the-way-of-the-aspiring-sensitive-boyfriend scenario, that it forgets the oddities it sets up in favor of meet-cutes and lonesome emotional guitar playing scenes. It’s not conducive to what they seemingly wanted to do with this kitschy film full of hipper-than-thou hopefuls. What about the guy growing out of the ground? What about the freaky house? And how about the strange man that lives in a trailer in the back yard? These factors seem unimportant compared to how our troubled troubadour is going to wind up with the girl of his dreams, and while I for one was interested to a point, it left me at the end feeling slightly disappointed and expecting a slightly more charming, slightly smarter, slightly weirder movie that just didn’t come. If you want well-paced and well-shot on a shoestring budget, this is a good bet, but this isn’t what you’re thinking of when you’re thinking of a bizarre film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Overly talky and slow, the film is tedious and unpersuasive. Ratliff fails to integrate the mechanics of supernatural horror with his concern for youthful passions and dreams, and the result is glum indeed.”–Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

CAPSULE: S. DARKO (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chris Fisher

FEATURING: , Briana Evigan, Ed Westwick

PLOT: Samantha Darko goes on a cross-country road trip and learns along the way that, once again, the world will end at a predetermined time unless she figures out a way to stop it. Where’s Jake Gyllenhaal when you need him?

Still from S. Darko (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In a way, S. Darko is an oddity itself; its very existence is questionable to anyone who has ever seen the original. But the only weird thing about this movie is how much it missed the mark. It’s a cheap teen thriller looking for a quick direct-to-DVD freak-show buck, not a captivating look at angry youth, mental illness, and time travel.

COMMENTS:  In this direct sequel to Donnie Darko, a movie that couldn’t have needed a sequel any less, we follow the exploits of Samantha Darko, Donnie’s little sister, who lost interest in the preteen dance group Sparkle Motion and went about growing up. She decides, or perhaps her BFF Corey decides for her, that she wants to become a professional dancer. They take a road trip from Virginia to California seeking this lofty goal, but their car peters out in rinky-dink 90s Utah. From there, they meet a couple locals, and everything seems peachy until BAM! time travel stuff happens again; not because of some real world-shattering drama, but through the power of friendship (???) The whole concept is somehow more bogus than before, and the suspension of disbelief is infinitely harder to maintain. It’s a bland pastiche of ideas presented in the first film blended together with sexy ladies and 90s slang that weakly mimics Richard Kelly’s original like a parrot without a beak. There’s none of the spirit of Donnie Darko to be found here that would even qualify this movie as a spiritual successor. S. Darko has a hollow concept that could have been designed to boot up a franchise involving time traveling teens with washboard abs. I’m not a slavish follower of the original, but Kelly had inspiration, and at least a vague idea of where to place a camera to make the most of a scene. S. Darko is all textbook pap, and while I don’t think I would travel back in time to un-watch this movie (as that is the single lamest reason to time travel ever) I won’t look back on it fondly, to say the least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“S. DARKO is intriguing, and its actors come off well, but there’s no way of escaping comparisons to DONNIE, a truly special film…While you can tell it’s trying as hard as it can, and takes things a little further and into weirder territory in the process, the soul just isn’t there.”–Samuel Zimmerman, Fangoria

CAPSULE: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009)

DIRECTED BYSpike Jonze

FEATURING: Max Records, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara

PLOT: A troubled, rambunctious boy travels to a land where wild beasts anoint him their king, but discovers that socialization is a struggle even in his imagination.

STill from Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jonze slips a couple of odd visions into this ersatz kiddie fare; watch for the giant dog on the horizon, the friendly stoning of a few owls in flight, and a surprising limb-rending scene. The director fills the frame with scattered cuddly monsters of childhood psychology, but there’s not enough of the frantically irrational here to justify a weird rating.

COMMENTS:  It’s been only a few weeks since Where the Wild Things Are‘s release, and the movie already comes with its own critical cliche: this isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a movie about childhood. Like most cliches, there’s truth in the observation, and I have empirical evidence to back it up: I saw the film in the company of a 9 and an 11 year old, and they found it boring. As a boy, I would have found it boring too; there’s not much narrative thrust to the film, and its conflicts are complicated and interpersonal. To a kid, the tale itself is a mundane series of playground antics played out in an exotic setting—Max and his monster pals build a fort, engage in a dirt clod war, and favoritism and hurt feelings take over until someone decides to take their ball and go home—not a magical adventure they can get lost in. They’ll take some delight in beasts themselves, who are attractive and tactile with surprisingly expressive CGI faces: Muppets from the id. But the complex childhood psychology, while fascinating to nostalgic adults, will go right over their heads, the omnipresent womb imagery won’t make a dent in their little psyches, and the melancholy moral about accepting one’s limitations will be hard to absorb.

Each of the wild things Max encounters in his flight of fantasy represents some childhood preoccupation of his, and although it’s easy to see connections between the individual beasties and his real life, the symbolism is complex and mixed-up, just the way a real child’s dreams would be. There isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between each beast and a real life character.  Carol, who’s creative (and, like our hero, intensely destructive whenever he feels his creativity is being impinged upon), is Max’s main alter ego, but Carol also seems to represent Max’s absent father. KW, who is drifting away from the family unit to make new friends of her own, is simultaneously Max’s teenage sister and his mom, who has a new boyfriend. Other wild things represent various facets of childhood experience—there’s a goatlike being who complains he’s constantly being ignored, and the cynical horned woman who champions the defeatist voice inside us all. Getting along with these competing aspects of himself proves as difficult to Max as getting along with playmates and family in the real world. It ends as a sort of Jungian tragedy, as Max fails to integrate and harmonize the competing aspects of himself. The closest thing to an epiphany Max achieves is his disillusionment when he abdicates, admitting he’s been lying to these beasts he sought to rule. He’s not a king, or even a great explorer: “I’m just Max.” “Well, that’s not very much, is it?” shoots back his disappointed monster alter-ego, Carol, who longed for a monarch to bring order to their disintegrating fantasyland. Max has no answer to this self-riposte. His only solace is that he has a lifetime left to devise a comeback.

The grapevine says that Warner Brothers pressured Jonze to do some serious reshooting after his initial, even darker cut had tykes in tears at test screenings. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable director’s cut delivers something even more idiosyncratic and uncompromising, maybe even a tad weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Max’s dilemma and emotions are distilled to their essence, so the way his real-life suffering informs his dreamscapes becomes unmistakable… more than just a visual feast; it’s a blissful evocation of imagining as a process of spiritual maturation.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: CITY NINJA [TOU QING KE] (1985)

AKA Ninja Holocaust; Rocky’s Love Affairs

DIRECTED BY: Yeung Chuen Bong or Liu Li Shen

FEATURING: Cassanova Wong, Chen Wei Man, Chia Che Fu?

PLOT:  Two men, one a boxing champion and one a destitute but talented up-and-comer, seek two necklaces, each with half of a Swiss bank account number engraved on it, for two different criminal organizations.

City Ninja

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This is one crazy chopsocky, but “over-the-top,” “shamelessly exploitative” and “incoherent” are more accurate adjectives to describe it than “weird.”

COMMENTS: From the opening scene where a wandering farmer fights off a horde of ninjas who randomly disappear or explode when defeated, you can be sure that this is a movie that places action and violence far above coherence and logic. You may have seen that coming, but what might surprise you is how much sex gets thrown into the mix. Both of the dual heroes gets several sweaty couplings with his main or subsidiary squeeze, and the flick even throws in a gratuitous Caucasian stripper groupie hired for her cultural willingness to show skin (the Asian girls demurely cover their naughty bits behind a frosted shower stall, soaking wet kimono, or a lover’s flailing limbs). The sex scenes are extra steamy for this type of movie, and even lead to some soap-opera style histrionics when one of the fighters is confronted by the girlfriend he dumped in front of the Other Woman; she pulls a gun on him while informing him she’s pregnant. The director views plot as a necessary evil that gets in the way of fight and sex scenes, yet he tackles a complicated story with two different strands and many moving parts. The result is that he rushes from fight scene to sex scene and back, and fits in exposition when he has a spare moment; there are several times when the viewer gets totally lost because the movie fails to establish which plotline it’s exploring at the moment.

Though the sex makes it stand out from the pack, chopsockies rely on flying boots, not heaving breasts, and City Ninja delivers memorable melees in spades. The combatants are lightning fast, the fight choreography is excellent, there’s comedy that actually works, and the mini-scenarios can be delightfully absurd. Best is a brilliant billiard room brawl with a kabuki-faced acrobat/poolshark that morphs into a mud-wrestling match; there’s also a remarkably executed scene where a boxer fights off attackers by manipulating his girlfriend’s stockinged legs as she sits on his shoulders. It’s far from high art, but it’s crazy and fun, and you have to admire the pure devotion to exploitation movie principles.

The IMDB credits Godfrey Ho as writer of Ninja Holocaust. Godfrey may or may not have been involved, but it certainly has that convoluted Ho vibe. The plot description and reviews make it clear that City Ninja and Ninja Holocaust are substantially the same movie, but the listed credits for the two films differ. I don’t feel particularly compelled to do the detective work necessary to straighten the credits out. Though it has two different heroes and can be difficult to follow, City Ninja does not appear to be spliced together from two different movies, as some assume based on it’s rumored association with cut-n-paste master Ho.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie is dumber than a box of dog biscuits, but it’s also a lot of fun. You never have to wait for something ridiculous to happen and the flick is never boring.”–Mitch, The Video Vacuum (DVD)

CAPSULE: PONTYPOOL (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Bruce McDonald

FEATURING: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

PLOT: Zombies who aren’t really zombies wreak havoc upon the peaceful (i.e. dull) Canadian town of Pontypool. We’re taken through the terror through the perspective of a local FM Zoo Crew DJ and his associates as more and more reports come into the station describing unnaturally violent tendencies in a growing minority of residents possibly infected with some kind of virus.
Still from Pontypool (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pontypool is merely a zombie movie with a twist. While it’s an admittedly interesting twist, I can’t help but feel that there’s not really a weird sensibility behind this project.  It’s original at times, strikingly original, and the writing is crisper than this little project merited, so it’s definitely a “good ‘un,” but it doesn’t stand out as freaky as much as it does slightly ahead of the curve in the horror genre.

COMMENTS:  Pontypool exists at that strange nether region between genius and camp that had me at “Sunshine Chopper.”  It’s a film that’s joyously in love with itself and the creativity that spawned it.  What’s so special about it? Well, besides the ingenious FM radio motif that anyone who’s ever been stuck in a commute will appreciate, it’s a film about the power of the spoken word.  Here, it’s English.  You see, what’s affecting these violent people is what can best be described as a virus affecting our collective language.  The people infected aren’t trying to kill other people as much as they are wanting to bite the words out of someone else’s mouth.  They’re stricken with a severe communications breakdown, and the mental anguish this inflicts upon said victim causes them to lash out violently.  It’s a really wicked concept, and I’m really quite impressed with the wit and cleverness involved with such an idea.  In the end, it’s really just a zombie movie, and it certainly has its limitations as far as the execution goes.  The soundtrack by Claude Foisy is weak and rather placid, the camerawork is hardly what anyone would call dynamic, and the actors are pretty green with the notable exception of the always-reliable Stephen McHattie.  But it’s definitely worth a shot if you’re a fan of the zombie film; as far as that niche goes, this blows about 65% of its peers out of the water and onto the shore for them to writhe uncontrollably, as is a zombie’s wont.  But as a weird movie, it has a long way to go in the grand scheme of things.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The suspense is carefully built up, but the film starts to get a little sticky, even risible, when it appears that the virus driving people mad is carried by words, specifically English ones, so the survivors in the studio start to converse in Franglais. But for the most part it’s compellingly apocalyptic.”–Philip French, The Observer

CAPSULE: BRAINIAC [El barón del terror] (1962)

DIRECTED BY:  Chano Urueta

FEATURING: Abel Salazar

PLOT: A smirking sorcerer is burnt alive by the Spanish Inquisition, only to return three hundred years later as a shapeshifting brain-eater to wreak his vengeance on the descendants of those who condemned him.

Still from Brainiac (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTBrainiac‘s appeal, weird or otherwise, lies almost entirely in its delirious hairy monster with its two-foot, forked, brain-sucking tongue. The beast looks like a mix between a middle-schooler’s papier-mâché art project and a legitimate nightmare. The rest of the movie is a different kind of nightmare.

COMMENTSBrainiac‘s story of vengeance from beyond the grave is a sloppy mess that exists only to showcase its unforgettable monster. And what a freak that Brianiac is! With its beaklike nose, sharp protruding ears, dual fangs, lobster-claw hands and two foot tongue, its head is hung with more phallic symbols per square inch than any other Mexican monster of its era. To add to its brutish masculine menace, the head is oversized, hairier than Dr. Hyde, and its temples and cheeks bulge and pulse when it sees itself faced with a helpless female victim. The Brainiac’s appearance (not to mention his behavior) is simultaneously goofy and frightening; the mask is so obvious and the facial features so exaggerated that the whole package seems to have been shipped to us equally from the land of parody and the land of nightmare. It’s an image that’s not easily forgotten, and one that’s kept El barón del terror in circulation on TV and video for over forty years, while thousands and thousands of more competent productions have been forgotten. When the monster’s not on screen, bad movie fans can entertain themselves by picking apart the plot’s inconsistencies—I find it especially odd that the Inquisitors who sentenced the Baron to death, presumably all celibate clergymen, each ended up with exactly one descendant three hundred years later. When in human form, the Baron occasionally sneaks off for a snack of brains eaten with a spoon out of a silver chalice. Also keep an eye out for the worst depiction of a comet ever put on the screen. In terms of riotous dialogue and incidents, however, Brainiac is no Plan 9 from Outer Space, and anyone who’s not a connoisseur of crap will find it slow going whenever the monster’s not on screen.

Brainiac was one of the Mexican fantasy movies imported into this country by the legendary K. Gordon Murray, dubbed into English and then sold to kiddie matinees or packaged for late-night TV showings in the U.S.  Murray also was responsible for bringing Mexican wrestling superhero movies (e.g. Santo) and several demented fairy tales (Santa Claus, Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters) north of the border.  David Silva, who plays a police detective, later appeared in El Topo as the Colonel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre. Nutty. Goofy. Ridiculous. Hilarious. The Brainiac! Even for Mexihorror this is one weird, way-out flick.”–Eccentric Cinema