Category Archives: Essays

WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?

Here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, our staff is repeatedly faced with a perplexing question: How do you quantify a movie as “weird”? It’s like the old Supreme Court ruling on how to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” OK, but our mission is to sort out the 366 Weirdest movies, on top of that. Now we’re forced to quantify movies, because some will be on the list and some will not. Given any two movies that appear equally weird, how do you rank them?

It’s an unanswerable question, ultimately. But here, submitted for the consideration of anybody who cares, is the closest thing to an objective system the present author can think of when ranking a movie’s weirdness. It’s the system I partially use when throwing in my vote for yay or nay on whether a movie belongs on the list. Since we even have reader polls once in awhile to vote movies onto the list, perhaps it will do some good to share it. It’s not an iron-clad rule, merely a guide.

What a silly exercise! No doubt Robin Williams from Dead Poets’ Society will charge in here after we’re done and tell us all to rip this page out of the textbook. Have at it, Robin, you’re probably right.

The Weird Movie Ranking System

You can rank a movie’s weirdness in four areas. These axes of ranking are:

  • Premise – A wild or original idea. The substance.
  • Presentation – The method, attitude, or approach of storytelling. The style.
  • Detail – The stuff you see in the “indelible image” and “three weird things” section of list entries.
  • Passion – The commitment to an individual and original vision imbued by the movie’s creator(s).

The higher we can rank a movie on each of these axes, the weirder it is. This isn’t anything silly like a one-to-ten scale, just a general mark of “high” or “low.” Most movies can’t make it onto the list with a high ranking in only one aspect. But the more boxes we tick on the list, the higher its chances. Now to examine each axis in more depth:

Premise

Premise appears to be the least important metric in measuring a movie’s weirdness. Premise is closely related to plot, but not identical. Some entries, such as Un Chien Andalou, have no plot to speak of. “A girl falls asleep and dreams about a magical fantasy land” can describe both The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. The premise doesn’t make the movie weird by itself.

Detail from Being John Malkovich posterBut it sure helps. Being John Malkovich is a great example: An office building staff discovers a portal into an actor’s head, and tries to exploit it for profit. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is about a bed that eats people. Elevator Movie is Continue reading WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?

MR. BURTON’S BRAND OF PECULIAR MOVIES: A TIM BURTON ROUNDTABLE

As we approach the culmination of the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, hard choices need to be made. There are some directors (including , and ) who, while their overall contribution to the field of weird movies might not rise to the heights of a , a , or a , nonetheless possess singular enough visions to demand representation in some form or other on the List. The thorniest of these artists is almost certainly (with whom our Alfred Eaker, in particular, has aired his very public love/hate relationship).

After a couple of shockingly original short features that were so odd that Disney Studios canned him as a storyboard artist, Burton’s career began in earnest with the out-there kid’s comedy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, an askew road movie starring an abrasively endearing man-child in a series of near-surreal adventures. He followed this unexpected hit with a series of comic-Gothic films featuring weirdo square-peg protagonists trying vainly to fit into society’s round holes. As a complete oeuvre, there’s no doubt that Burton has crafted an aesthetic that’s unique and auteurial. Stripes, organic spirals, Victorian costumes, and pallid pancake makeup serve as recurring visual signatures. Thematically, no one else whips the whimsical and the macabre into such a piquant froth. His late work, however, has unquestionably become both repetitive and qualitatively inferior (note that none of our contributors selected a Burton film made after 1999 as his best). At the same time, Burton has set new box office records with some of his lamest work, like his execrable Alice in Wonderland rehaul, reaping financial rewards that reinforce his worst habits and instincts. This has led to a well-deserved critical backlash against his films, and some on-point parodies:

But despite recent disappointments, there’s no doubt that Burton’s early work was among the most original and gruesomely lively Hollywood-backed product to appear throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties. The problem is that no single Burton film rises confidently above the rest, pronouncing itself as simultaneously his best and his weirdest work. This troublesome fact became even clearer when I solicited staff writers to pick the one Burton film that they thought should unquestionably make the List; I got five different responses, not all of them movies I personally would have considered. Our staff’s suggestions are listed below, in order of release.

El Rob Hubbard Beetlejuice (1988)

Still from Beetlejuice (1988)Although most of Tim Burton’s work has a weird aspect in some form or other, it’s my opinion that Beetlejuice was where he was allowed to let his freak flag fly freely, and it paid off with box-office success. How weird is it? Well, there’s Geena Davis and a Continue reading MR. BURTON’S BRAND OF PECULIAR MOVIES: A TIM BURTON ROUNDTABLE

REALIZING THE WITCH

Editors note: Richard Baxstrom, co-author (along with Todd Meyers) of “Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible”, contacted us with a request that we add the recently included book to the bibliography on our Häxan [Witchcraft Through the Ages] Certified Weird entry. He also included some thoughts on the book and why this academic work would be of interest to readers of this site. His commentary was long and detailed enough that we thought it merited its own post. Neither 366 Weird Movies nor Mr. Baxtrom were paid for this article; we simply thought it was an unusual situation which might be of interest to our readers.

’s 1922 film Häxan certainly qualifies as one of the strangest films ever made. This is the power the film possesses, and it caught Todd Meyers and me in its spell from the first time we encountered it. And this is what compelled us to write a book about it. We begin our book Realizing the Witch this way:

The Wild Ride. The Sabbat. Child sacrifice. Diseases, ruin and torture. The old hag. The kleptomaniac. The modern hysteric. Benjamin Christensen took the threads of phantasm and wove them into a film thesis that would not talk about witches, but would give the witch life. Häxan is a document, an amplified account of the witch insistent on its historical and anthropological qualities, presented through excesses so great that they toyed with his audience’s skepticism as much as their sensitivity. Christensen created an artistic work filled with irrationalities that not only made the witch plausible, but real.

Yes, you read that correctly—we argue that Benjamin Christensen shows us how the witch was real for sixteenth century Europeans. Our book is ultimately an attempt to understand how this could possibly be so. Even more strangely, we assert without shame or irony that Häxan has a great deal to say about what we take to be real or true today. Christensen always insisted that Häxan was a non-fiction film. We take his assertion very seriously and it is only by giving one’s self over to the utterly excessive, outlandish weirdness of Christensen’s creation that his claim and our agreement with it makes any sense at all. Anyone who has truly seen Häxan will immediately understand what we mean by this – the reality of the dark power of the witch is made known to us through her excessiveness, her weirdness.

We wrote this book for scholars and for fans of the film alike. This is a tricky balance to achieve. Our solution was to go as far as we could with Christensen and Häxan, to embrace and immerse ourselves in the film’s weirdness and try to come back from this journey with our own expression of why “the weird” is powerful, important, and truthful in its own way. This seems to be entirely consistent with what we perceive 366 Weird Movies is seeking to do and we are quite happy to find Häxan presented in the company of so many other wonderful, weird, and important films.

Richard Baxstrom

Edinburgh – March 2016

REPORT FROM FANTASTIC FEST 2015

See also: Alex Kittle’s Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantastic Fest 2015

Fantastic Fest is an experience like no other. I say that not to shill, just to state a simple fact. This was my first time attending the now-storied genre film festival, hosted by the famous Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and it’s safe to describe the event as “something else.” Over the course of eight days I saw over 30 films—primarily new releases but also repertory screenings of Turkish pop-cinema, Shaw Brothers classics, 80s horror, and two secret screenings—and attended karaoke performances, video game demonstrations, and a Wild West-themed party. I missed some of the night-time shenanigans either because of exhaustion or conflict with screenings, but I do know that the hardest question in the Fantastic Feud game was (to me) a no-brainer concerning the aliens in Earth Girls Are Easy. I made friends with locals and critics while waiting for my films to start. I ate a decidedly inappropriate amount of fried food. I danced the chicken dance along with Alamo director Tim League. I watched DJs in animal costumes rap about reincarnation. I learned all about the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s from authors who were connected to it. I bumped elbows with festival attendees , Kumail Nanjiani, and Karyn Kusama (but was too shy to talk to any of them). I had, for lack of a better word, a fantastic time.

Fantastic Fest 2015Throughout the week I saw almost everything I wanted see, including recent festival hits like The Lobster, The Witch, and Victoria, as well as new efforts from filmmakers I admire such as Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, and Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast. From the documentary Remake, Remix, Rip-Off, I learned about the remarkably resourceful filmmakers working in Turkey during the 1970s-80s, who took advantage of the country’s lax copyright laws and created hundreds of weird, pastiche remakes. And while I missed The Man Who Saves the World (aka “Turkish Star Wars”), I did catch The Deathless Devil, a highly enjoyable caper that combines elements of superhero serials, James Bond, and killer robots—plus the star of the film was there to tell us silly behind-the-scenes stories. After joking that I wished the secret screening would be Crimson Peak, I was elated to discover it in fact WAS Crimson Peak and I just about lost it when walked out on stage! Everyone received a complimentary pint glass and I’m still riding kind of high from the whole experience. The second secret screening was one of Drafthouse’s “unearthed” cult films, a haphazard action movie called Dangerous Men that doesn’t quite reach the enjoyably campy heights of personal favorites like Miami Connection or Hard Ticket to Hawaii, but certainly had its ridiculous moments. The most-hyped film was Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which I saw only after hearing nearly every single fest attendee sing its praises, and while it is a very good, brutal thriller, it is, in fact, not the greatest thing ever, Continue reading REPORT FROM FANTASTIC FEST 2015

THE HISTORY OF SUPERHERO MOVIES (AND THEIR RABID FANBOYS) PART TWO

Continued from last week’s survey of the history of the superhero movie.

Today, Marvel has the upper hand in big screen superhero adaptations. However, DC has long ruled the small screen with both live-action and animated productions. DC’s “Superboy” series (1988-1992) was actually written by comic writers (imagine that), producing a critical and popular success.

Trying to compete with their rival, Marvel issued The Punisher (1989), and the film was as inherently dull as the character itself (they proved this point again in a 2004 reboot).

In the wake of 1989’s hot Batman, executives launched the short-lived TV series “The Flash” (1990). Somehow, it took awhile for them to realize that the Red speedster’s appeal lay in his flashy nemeses. By the time they figured it out, the potential audience had given up after seeing Flash square off against one too many bland burglars. This was unfortunate because later episodes, two of which feature Mark Hamill as the Trickster, were among television’s most psychedelic comic book adaptations.

Dick Tracy (1990)Warren Beatty produced, directed, and starred in Dick Tracy (1990), which ranks among the best of its kind, self-consciously conveying a delightfully alternative synthetic universe despite uneven writing and an off-kilter performance from Madonna.

Foolishly, Warner Brothers sacked from its Dark Knight franchise (a testament to the influence of a mighty McDonald’s Happy Meal deal) and committed hara-kiri by turning the reigns over to perennial hack Joel Schumacher.

Not surprisingly, on TV “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995), the animated “Superman” (1996-2000), and “Justice League” (2001-2006) found the original comics’ pulse far better than most of their feature film counterparts. Like the earlier incarnation, ‘s “Spiderman” (1994-1995) also became a much sought after cult favorite. Semper had a simple rule, which one think would be obvious to everyone but producers: “It does not matter who Spiderman is battling. What matters is Peter Parker has girlfriend problems and struggles to pay the rent.”

DC’s “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (1993-1997), shared Semper’s commonsense ideology. Again, DC met with critical and popular success, despite its less than dignified final season.

Marvel had a trio of hits in Blade (1998), the even better Blade II (2002), and Blade Trinity (2004), although as super-horror none of the films could compare to Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan’s long-running cult comic book “Tomb of Dracula.”

DC’s “Smallville” premiered in 2001 and had an extraordinary decade-long run until 2011, although it consistently had mixed reviews.

Smartly, Marvel briefly learned from mistakes made by DC and hired Continue reading THE HISTORY OF SUPERHERO MOVIES (AND THEIR RABID FANBOYS) PART TWO

THE HISTORY OF SUPERHERO MOVIES (AND THEIR RABID FANBOYS) PART ONE

“Fan” is short for fanatic, and fanatic is synonymous with fundamentalist. Most people associate fundamentalism solely with religion, but this kind of zealotry is hardly confined to beliefs about the afterlife or universal creation. It is a given that partisan politics, opera, and comic books invite rabid fundamentalism. All of these interests have denominational factions (Republican vs. Democrats, Traditionalist vs. Modernists, Marvel vs. DC) and each has their own form of atheism or, more accurately, an imagined conspiracy of atheism, which the various defenders will see as a provocative enemy.

Steel from Man of Steel
2013’s “Man of Steel”

Like evangelical kooks, the majority of fans subscribe to either/or isms. The comparative religious example would be adherents to sola scriptura (in layman’s terms, biblical inerrancy). Approaching ancient sacred texts as a mix of mythology, parable, folklore, poetry, metaphor, and symbology with a sliver of historicity is beyond the fundamentalist’s grasp. That is a choice. To say it is irrelevant whether or not something actually happened is heresy for the fundie; an aesthetic or literary approach to scripture is incomprehensible.

My grad school experience in theology made for some frustrating, but humorous, exchanges. I manifested a classic example of “open mouth, insert foot,” in dialogue with a professor when I unthinkingly referred to the Genesis narrative as a “creation myth.”

Like a bee to honey, a fellow student immediately interrupted: “You don’t believe Adam and Eve existed?”

“Well, being an adult, no I don’t believe snakes talk, the earth is 6,000 years old, or we all came from two people. It’s simply a beautiful myth.”

“Then, you don’t believe in the Bible.”

“Explain to me what you mean by belief, because that is an abstract concept. You can’t touch belief, see it, hear it, or smell it.”

“I don’t have to explain it because you are one of those liberal, existentialist atheists who gives God the finger.”

“No, I am not an atheist. Rather, I am a progressive Catholic existentialist who gives your two-dimensional version of God the finger.”

Because I did not take the Bible at face value (as she obviously did) and because I dared to hint, from a literal perspective, that the Bible was a fallible collection of writings, she assumed I had to be an atheist. From her severe perspective, it was easier to stick me in the box labeled atheist. As the dialogue continued, the student predictably leveled the accusation of “pretension.” It’s the well-worn standby defense crutch of every simpleton—when they fail to grasp something beyond their black or white, either/or point of view, they automatically spew accusations of snobbery, elitism and pretentiousness, Continue reading THE HISTORY OF SUPERHERO MOVIES (AND THEIR RABID FANBOYS) PART ONE

RELIGULOUS (2008)

The following is not standard for 366 material, but given the controversial nature of the film, we feel it has an off the beaten path place here.

When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.

Critic Brian Orndorf wrote:

Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?

Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith.

ReligulousMaher’s perspective on Catholicism suggests he believes it resembles a Protestant evangelical faith. Most post-Vatican II Catholics today would not identify with such views. One could even question the extent of Maher’s exposure to Catholic education, even in a pre-Vatican II environment. His portrayal of Revelations as a literal doomsday book is undeniably filtered through an evangelical lens. Yet, from its earliest history, Catholic readings have predominantly interpreted it as a metaphorical work, written in a popular period genre. It is not viewed as prophecy but, rather, as a book of the past, which sounded a warning regarding the first great persecutor of Christians: Nero.

Neeley Tucker of the Washington Post addressed Maher’s rudimentary knowledge of religion:

One of the rules of satire is that you can’t mock things you don’t understand, and Religulous starts developing fault lines when it becomes clear that Maher’s view of religious faith is based on a sophomoric reading of the Scriptures and that he doesn’t understand that some thoughtful people actually do believe in some sort of spiritual life.

While Maher was not writing an academic paper, his film could have Continue reading RELIGULOUS (2008)

DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, SOCIAL MEDIA AND INDEPENDENT CINEMA

Consider the difference between Eraserhead (1977) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), The former was produced meticulously on a shoestring budget, with continual setbacks due to the cost of film (the medium) itself. With EMPIRE had the ability to shoot digitally, and he felt completely uninhibited, improvising with his camera, shooting aimlessly for hours on end. He thought of it as an exercise in stream-of-consciousness filmmaking.

Whether other contemporary filmmakers now favor digital shooting technology for its stream-of-consciousness capabilities, or simply because of the convenience and cost-efficiency, there’s no disputing that digital technology has forever changed the production of filmmaking.

Digital media has affected other aspects of independent filmmaking, too. Video streaming sites have opened up new distribution channels for independents (and one that is infinitely cheaper), and social media has given independent filmmakers a new means of promoting their work, and it is, in some measurable way, changing public discourse about film.

Consider ’s independently produced animated feature Sita Sings the Blues (2009), which had a composite narrative featuring story elements from the Ramayana (an epic Hindu tale) and Paley’s personal life. Astoundingly, Paley made the entire 82-minute film right on her laptop. Paley ran into trouble because she had included Annette Hanshaw songs from the twenties in her film—music which was still under copyright protection. Paley didn’t have a distributor, and struggled to secure the money to pay the copyright fees. Ultimately, she decided to alter the film’s Creative Commons license, so it is now in the public domain and could be downloaded at full resolution.

Although the movie saw little distribution in the conventional way, it still managed to make an impact, thanks to mainstream media and digital media alike. Major critics heaped praise upon her, including Roger Ebert, who went as far as to call it one of “best films” of 2009. Data from Viral Heat shows that that popular opinion also echoed what the critics were saying:

Continue reading DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, SOCIAL MEDIA AND INDEPENDENT CINEMA

TASTE BREAKERS

“The author was compensated for writing this article by a third party. Nonetheless, it  was written specifically for 366 Weird Movies, and we believe the  information and opinions contained in this piece will be of interest to our readers.

“Taste Breakers” by Brandon Engel

It was recently announced that independent film production company A24, who have contemporary filmmaker Harmony Korine in their alum roster, has partnered with Direct TV for a new collaborative business model. Direct TV will help finance the production of A24 films, which will then premiere on Direct TV’s Video on Demand service one month prior to being released in theaters. The possible implications of this move for modern independent filmmakers are vast; Korine’s transgressive contemporaries at A24 and elsewhere could stand to benefit from the industry moving in this direction.

Thankfully, the world has always been populated by thoughtful, provocative artists willing to address societal ills and provoke public discourse through their work. The big question for these subversive artists historically has always been: “how do you secure funding for projects (let alone sustain yourself) without having to relinquish creative control of your content?”

Nowadays, as companies like Direct TV use “TV on demand” as a distribution vehicle for independent film and even begin to fund films themselves, and others use the distribution model that sites like Hulu and Netflix are establishing, where films can be streamed instantaneously, independent filmmakers may now be able to reconcile their financial needs with their creative ambitions more simply than ever before. What does all of this mean for contemporary filmmakers and present-day viewers? Here’s a look at three contemporary subversive filmmakers who just might provide some insight on that very question…

Lars Von Trier

Lars von TrierThe Danish filmmaker is reportedly plagued by phobias and anxieties, which isn’t the least bit difficult to believe if you’ve seen any of his films. There’s no disputing the fact that he’s an extremely important, and unique, presence in the world of international cinema. He helped establish the guidelines of the Dogme 95 collective, which are essentially a list of restrictions that filmmakers should abide by based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, while excluding the use of extraneous special effects.

His film Dancer in the Dark (2000) featured Icelandic pop star Bjork in the lead role of Selma. Selma is a blind Czech immigrant working in a factory in the United States in 1964. She is ultimately wrongfully accused of harboring communist sympathies, and perceived as a threat to the United States. The film is perversely celebrated for having one of the most upsetting endings in the history of cinema.

There is also Antichrist (2009), which received mixed responses from critics and audiences. The film tells the story of an unnamed couple ( and ) grieving the loss of their infant son, who Continue reading TASTE BREAKERS

PHANTASM: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY

WARNING: This essay contains spoilers for Phantasm.

Phantasm is weird and fascinating, a chunky mix of delightfully sinister and distractingly campy, but its style and aesthetic do not suggest subtlety or invite a deeply penetrating reading. The best way to come to grips with it on the first watch-through is just to ride along like you’re on a bumpy, gruesome roller coaster, enjoying the earnestness and strange excess as it passes by. Like any good coaster, it’s jerky and unpredictable, and you should step off at the end with your head a bit mixed up.

There are further ways to think about the film, though, and I’m here to present one of them: a broad, selective analysis that should at least provide a greater appreciation of the film’s unifying neuroses. Think of it as sort of a loose analytical tribute, rather than a rigorous close reading, a love letter to a film that deserves to be thought about, but doesn’t seem designed to facilitate it.

My angle here: that the little suburban universe of Phantasm reflects a state of mind… particularly, that of main character Michael, the thirteen-year old boy who has recently lost his parents and is in constant fear of abandonment by his older brother. While I don’t think the events of the plot are meant to fit together neatly, and I don’t think they’re engineered for closure or explanation (the ghouls are short because of a gravitational difference? Really?), I do think the film makes a lot of sense when mapped to a certain terrain of terrified adolescent psychology.

The question naturally arises, especially in light of the film’s final scene: does the whole film literally take place inside Michael’s head? Is this suburb explicitly his imaginary dreamscape, a la Inception or The Cell? I would say it’s defensible to read it that way. However, it’s complicated by the nature of the villain, the Tall Man, who manifests at every level of the movie’s reality: Michael and Jody’s dreams, the general landscape of the town, and then the outer realm that we only see at the very end of the film. This suggests, at least to me, that even though most of the film takes place in a dream, The Tall Man is not strictly a psychological projection or a dream-villain… he is some sort of evil entity that exists outside all these psychological spaces, who’s managed to infiltrate them and break down the barriers between objective and subjective realities. It may be Michael’s dreamscape, but the Tall Man is at least partly in control.

Phantasm Map
Click for a larger view

We are given a few distinct hints that “psychogeography” is a fruitful way of looking at Phantasm. After the first funeral scene, there’s a moment with a weirdly-tanned side character who never appears again in the film. He questions Jody on his decision to stay in this crappy town. Jody suggests that he’s there because of Michael, but yes, he hates it… thus, we get an explicit connection between the town and Michael, and an emotional baseline—paralysis and trauma—is established. Jody even says he’s planning to leave, which invokes the contradictory possibilities of escape and abandonment.

This conversation is repeated, in certain respects, at the end of the film, when a suddenly-reincarnated Reggie suggests they go “on the road.” Thus, the film is bookended with indications that the town is a gestation chamber for Michael’s psychological trauma, from which escape is a distant but promising possibility.

Whether you see this town as a hermetically-sealed psychic universe, or just think of it as a normal municipality in some remote corner of suburbia, it’s nice to have a big picture. I’ve undertaken a quick cartography exercise and drawn a map of what I think it might look like, taking into account some of the details: the Continue reading PHANTASM: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY