Category Archives: Certified Weird (The List)

16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

“We hoped for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of Cocteau.”–variously attributed to screenwriter John Clifford or director Herk Harvey

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Herk Harvey

FEATURING: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger

PLOT:  Mary Henry, a church organist, is the lone survivor of an accident when the car she’s riding in plunges over the side of an old wooden bridge.  Looking to start over, she takes a job as an organist at a new church in a town where she knows no one.  She finds herself haunted by the sight of a pale grinning man who appears to her when she is alone, and fascinated by an old abandoned carnival pavilion visible from the window of her boarding house that she senses hold a mysterious significance.

carnival_of_souls
BACKGROUND:

  • Carnival of Souls was made in three weeks for less than $100,000 (figures on the budget vary, but some place it as low as $33,000).  The film was a flop on its initial release, but gained a cult following through late night television showings.  The film was restored and re-released in 1989 to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
  • Director Herk Harvey, screenwriter John Clifford and composer Gene Moore worked together at Centron Corporation, an industrial film company, creating short safety documentaries such as Shake Hands with Danger and high-school propaganda/hygiene films such as What About Juvenile Delinquency? None were ever involved with a feature film again.
  • Mesmerizing star Candace Hilligoss acted in only one other feature film, 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse, before retiring to raise a family.
  • The movie has been very influential on other films, particularly low-budget horror films.  Director George Romero has said that the ghostly figures in Carnival of Souls inspired the look and feel of the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Other writers see a Carnival of Souls influence on films such as Eraserhead (in regards to its ability to evoke the nightmarish quality of everyday objects), Repulsion (disintegration of the mind of a sexually repressed woman), and even Apocalypse Now (the shot of Martin Sheen rising from the water mimics a similar scene involving The Man–thanks to Matthew Dessem of “The Criterion Collection” for the catch).
  • Carnival of Souls was “remade” in 1998, although the plot (about a clown killer and rapist) shared nothing with the original except the name and the final twist.  Wes Craven produced.  The remake went direct to DVD and was savaged by critics and audiences alike.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  What else, but the titular carnival?  Ghostly figures waltz to an eerie, deranged organ score on what appears to be an old merry-go-round at the abandoned amusement park.  The tableau recurs twice in the film: once clearly in a dream, and once near the end as a scene that may also be a dream, but may be another state of being entirely.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDCarnival of Souls is set in the ordinary, everyday world, but as seen through the eyes of an alienated, frightened woman.  The world the film depicts is familiar, but made maddeningly strange, and its the subtle, grubby touches rather than ghostly apparitions that allow this creepy low-budget wonder to seep deep under your skin.


8 minute clip from Carnival of Souls (with annotations supplied by a youtube user)

COMMENTS: Carnival of Souls is a minor film miracle.  There was little reason to suspect Continue reading 16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)

“…it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly…”–Hermann Hesse in the 1961 prologue to Steppenwolf

DIRECTED BY:  Fred Haines

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Dominique Sanda, Alfred Baillou

PLOT:  Harry Haller is a world-weary writer and intellectual in the Weimar Republic who is considering committing suicide soon.  One night he meets Hermine, a beautiful young woman, who shows unusual interest in him and makes him pledge obedience to her as she initiates him into the pleasures of the flesh, including jazz, drugs, and sex.  Eventually Hermine leads Harry to the Magic Theater, where a delirious dream about some aspect of his personality lurks behind every door—including, perhaps, his homicidal side.

Still from Steppenwolf (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was adapted from Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse’s classic 1927 novel Steppenwolf, which had been rediscovered and adopted by the 1960s counterculture because of it’s perceived revolutionary vision and it’s apparent endorsement of free love and psychedelic drugs.
  • Michelangelo Antonioni (Blowup) was offered the chance to direct but turned it down because he thought the book was unfilmable.
  • This was the only film directed by Fred Haines.  He had previously been co-nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ulysses (1967).
  • Co-producer and LSD-enthusiast Melvin Abner Fishman declared the Steppenwolf would be “the first Jungian film.”
  • The Czech artist Jaroslav Bradac created the wonderful animated sequence, “The Tractate on the Steppenwolf”; the artist Mati Klarwein (who was also responsible for classic album covers for Miles Davis and Santana) created the fascinating paintings that line the corridors of the Magic Theater.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  For a movie that is so deliberately visionary, there’s not one single image that sticks out far above the others.  The most obvious choices are the images which show Harry simultaneously as a wolf and a man, a concept that is often chosen in numerous variations for covers of paperback editions of the novel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The heavy symbolism and feverish imagery of Hesse’s

Original trailer for Steppenwolf (1974)

masterpiece, written while Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious mind were still novel and revolutionary, present some weird scenarios (such as Harry entering into dream debates with the ghosts of Goethe and Mozart).  When this material is adapted through a 1974 lens, an era when cinematographers hadn’t yet come down from the LSD-inspired visual experimentalism of the late 1960s, it becomes even weirder.  From the Magic Theater sequence on, Steppenwolf is truly trippy stuff.

COMMENTS: There’s a difficulty in reviewing movie adaptations of novels, in that the Continue reading 15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)

14. BLOOD DINER (1987)

“I mean, I don’t know how to describe it. But I just did. It’s just an insane f***in’ movie with insane parts. You’re watching it, it gives these curves that you didn’t see coming, until probably I just told you and showed you in the review. But it’s just I don’t even know how else to review it, you know, the, it’s just insane. It’s an insane f****in’ movie. Uncle Bill, you’re insane for liking it, and I’m insane for liking it too. It’s just insanity incarnate. But it’s a lot of fun.”–youtube fan review of Blood Diner

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jackie Kong

FEATURING:  Rick Burks, Carl Crew

PLOT:  At the direction of their uncle Anwar, a talking brain in a jar, two restaurateur brothers assemble a vessel composed of body parts harvested from immoral women to receive the spirit of the ancient Egyptian goddess Sheetar.  They are opposed by a pair of mismatched cops and the owner of a rival vegetarian restaurant intent on stealing their secret recipe.  After many bloody murders, they must complete only the last ritual, a “Lumerian feast” where Sheetar will take the life of a virgin, along with the attendees at the banquet.

Still from Blood Diner (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • Blood Diner was originally intended to be a sequel to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ transcendently bad Blood Feast (1963), but when the collaborators could not agree on a scenario the project was changed to a black comedy tribute in the spirit of Lewis’ movie
  • Blood Diner was originally banned in some Canadian provinces and in Iceland, and was heavily cut for release in other countries.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  As drug-zombies rave and cultists in Egyptian dress attempt to channel the goddess into a stitched-together corpse, a punk band (composed of a singer in a Roman helmet, two backup singers in blue wigs, four sidemen dressed as Hitler and a pantomime horse roaming the stage) plays in the background.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Most movies featuring talking brains in a jar are weird, and Blood Diner is no exception.


Original trailer for Blood Diner

COMMENTS: There was little in female exploitation director Jackie Kong’s brief oeuvre to Continue reading 14. BLOOD DINER (1987)

13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)

AKA Kung Fu, Kung Fu-sion

“It’s good to go over the line.  It’ll be boring if it doesn’t.  Following reality is not refreshing for me.”–Yuen Woo-ping, fight choreographer for Kung Fu Hustle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Chow

FEATURING: Stephen Chow, Qui Yuen, Wah Yuen, Siu-Lung Leung

PLOT: The Axe Gang, hatchet-wielding hooligans garbed in black-tie evening wear, terrorizes Shanghai in the 1930s. Only the poorest areas avoid falling under their thumb—neighborhoods like Pig Sty Alley, a tenement building where every other resident seems to have one-in-a-million kung fu powers.  When an incompetent ersatz gangster tries to extort protection money from the residents of Pig Sty Alley, he accidentally sets in motion a series of events that brings the Axe Gang into conflict with the poor fighters, with explosive results.
Still from Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Stephen Chow worked his way up from the trenches of the Hong Kong film industry, starting in television (including a stint as a children’s TV host). He became one of Hong Kong’s most popular comedians, specializing in a verbal style of comedy called “mo lie tau” (roughly, “nonsense”), which relies heavily on puns, wordplay, incongruities and non sequiturs. He began directing in 1994.
  • Chow’s previous film, Shaolin Soccer (2001), was supposed to be his breakthrough film in the West, but distribution was botched by Miramax and the picture became only a small cult hit on DVD.
  • Chow coaxed many older actors from the kung fu’s heyday out of retirement to star in major roles in Kung Fu Hustle. Qui Yuen (who played the part of “Landlady”) was one of the few female martial arts stars of the 1970s and had a small non-speaking role in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Wah Yuen (“Landlord”) has over one hundred acting credits, mostly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was at one time Bruce Lee’s stunt double. Siu-lung Leung (“The Beast”) was at one time considered third only to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as a martial arts star, and had been retired from the film business since 1988.
  • Kung Fu Hustle was the most profitable feature in Hong Kong cinema history. In its US theatrical run it opened as the #5 movie in the country and became the highest grossing foreign language film of 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many memorable images in Kung Fu Hustle that it’s impossible to determine a consensus favorite.  The vision of two harpist assassins who strum their instruments to summon swords and warriors is a strong candidate, because their poetic menace draws a strong contrast to the lighter and less serious tone of the rest of the film.  Other contenders include the Axe Gang’s Broadway dance number, the Landlady’s whirling Road Runner legs, and a beatific Buddha in the clouds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDKung Fu Hustle begins with a brutal and atypically

Foreign distribution trailer for Kung Fu Hustle (under the title Kung-Fusion)

realistic gangland slaughter on the neon-washed streets of Shanghai, and to celebrate gaining control of the city, the Axe Gang breaks into a carefully choreographed Busby Berkeley style fox trot, waving their tomahawks in the air.  From this moment, the viewer realizes that they are in the hands of a maestro for whom reality is almost infinitely malleable, and who’s willing to switch cinematic styles at the drop of a hatchet to produce the effect he needs.  Chow’s direction drives the movie through numerous stylistic incarnations, from absurd visual comedy through a ballet of breathtakingly beautiful and unreal violence, while quoting everything from Wong Kar Wai to The Shining and The Untouchables to Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes,” yet never loses its grip on the story or alienates the viewer with its madcap diversions.

COMMENTS:Kung Fu Hustle is likely to be the most commercially successful, mainstream Continue reading 13. KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)

12. TROMEO AND JULIET (1996)

“Body piercing.  Kinky sex.  Dismemberment.  The things that made Shakespeare great.” –Tagline for Tromeo and Juliet

DIRECTED BY:  Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: , Jane Jensen, Lemmy, Debbie Rochon

PLOT:  Alcoholic Monty Que and unscrupulous Cappy Capulet have a long running feud dating back to their days as partners in a low-budget sleaze movie studio, and they have passed on their personal vendettas to the next generation.  Monty’s son, Tromeo, falls in love with Cappy’s daughter, Juliet.  The two young lovers must overcome the bloody gangland antics of their friends and family, Juliet’s upcoming arranged marriage to a self-mutilating meat-packing heir, and Cappy’s tendency to beat Juliet and lock her in a plexiglass box, among other crossed stars.

tromeojuliet

BACKGROUND:

  • Original drafts of the script had the parts played by costumed characters from other Troma studio releases: The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, and so on.
  • Much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue was included in the rough cut, but most was removed after negative audience reaction.
  • Rock n’ roll cult figure Lemmy (of the band Motörhead) played the role of the narrator for free, and also donated the song “Sacrifice” to the soundtrack.  Several less famous bands also donated songs for free or for a nominal price.
  • Shakespearean actor William Beckwith played the role of Cappy Capulet under the pseudonym “Maximillian Shaun” because he was a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and Tromeo and Juliet was a non-union film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many of the more memorable images in Tromeo and Juliet are too obscene to be depicted in stills.  The best sequence is when Juliet’s belly unexpectedly and rapidly distends and splits open to give birth to…  a surprise.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Redoing a classic Shakespearean tragedy as a low-budget, offensive farce is a promisingly weird, if obviously gimmicky, premise. Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team were inspired by the concept, however, and put more creativity into the project than they did in their usual formula schlock fare. The typical Troma anarchy and bad taste reign again here, but the producers add a healthy dollop of bargain-basement surrealism (Juliet’s disturbing sex dreams) and some on-the-cheap arthouse effects (the lovemaking scene in a plexiglass box against a starry backdrop). The result is a movie that’s completely unpredictable, despite a plot known to every high schooler. Tromeo is revolting one moment, and oddly sweet and beautiful the next, an incongruity that only adds to the weird atmosphere.

Short promotional clip for Tromeo & Juliet

COMMENTS: Troma is a low-budget film producer/distributor formed in 1974 to promote Continue reading 12. TROMEO AND JULIET (1996)

11. JACOB’S LADDER (1990)

“Something weird is going on here.  What is it about us?  Even in ‘Nam it was always weird.  Are we all crazy or something?” –line in original screenplay to Jacob’s Ladder

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Adrian Lyne

FEATURING: , Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello

PLOT:  Jacob Singer (nicknamed “Professor” by his army buddies due to his glasses and Ph.D.) is wounded in Vietnam after a harrowing, disorienting battle.  While he is on duty in Vietnam, his young son dies; years later, he works in New York City as a postman and has a sexy new girlfriend, Jezzie.  Jacob begins suffering flashbacks of the day he was wounded, along with hallucinations in which everyday people take on demonic forms—catching brief glimpses of tails, horns, and howling faces with blank features—and eventually discovers that the other members of his unit are experiencing similar symptoms.

jacobs_ladder

BACKGROUND:

  • The script for Jacob’s Ladder shuffled between Hollywood desks for years, impressing executives but not being viewed as a marketable project.  The script was cited by American Film Magazine as one of the best unproduced screenplays.
  • Before he asked to direct Jacob’s Ladder, British director Adrian Lyne was best known for sexy, edgy, and profitable projects such as Flashdance (1983), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Fatal Attraction (1987).
  • Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who later wrote Ghost [1990] and other commercial properties) says that his script was partly influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
  • Adrian Lyne states that some of the hellish visual cues in the film, including the whirring and vibrating head effect, were inspired by the woks of grotesque painter Francis Bacon.
  • Lyne deleted scenes and changed the ending after test audiences found the film to be too intense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A blurred, whirring human head which shakes uncontrollably from side to side at tremendous speed, seen several times throughout the film.  The effect looks mechanical, as if the head were an unbalanced ball attached to an out-of-control hydraulic neck.  It was achieved by filming an actor casually shaking his head from side to side at four frames per second, which produced a terrifying effect when played back at the standard twenty-four frames per second.  The technique has been imitated in movies, video games, music videos, and even a porno flick since, but has never since been used to such fearsome effect.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Like many psychological thrillers, Jacob’s Ladder strives to keep the audience disoriented and off-balance, wondering what is real and what is false. The movie achieves this effect wonderfully, but what gives it it’s cachet as a weird movie are two intense hallucination sequences: one at an horrifically orgiastic party intermittently lit by a strobe light, and one where the protagonist lies helpless on a hospital gurney as he’s wheeled down an increasingly bizarre and alarming hospital corridor. Both scenes are difficult to forget, equal parts creepy surrealism and visceral body-horror.

Original Trailer for Jacob’s Ladder

COMMENTS: I can’t watch Jacob’s Ladder without comparing it to Alan Parker’s Angel Heart.   The similarities are obvious: both were psychological thrillers with supernatural Continue reading 11. JACOB’S LADDER (1990)

10. ARCHANGEL (1990)

“And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach” (quote originally intended to introduce Archangel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Kathy Marykuca

PLOT: In 1919, one-legged Canadian airman Lt. John Boles finds his way to the Russian port of Archangel in the endless night of Arctic winter.  There, he meets Veronkha, whom he believes to be the reincarnation of Iris, his dead love.  Veronkha has problems of her own, in the form of an amnesiac husband who wakes up every day believing this is the day they are to be wed, but Boles tires to woo her nevertheless as Archangel’s ragtag militia battles the Germans and the Bolsheviks without realizing that both World War I and the Russian Revolution are over.

archangel

BACKGROUND:

  • The city of Archangel was the port of entry for Allied soldiers during World War I; therefore, soldiers from America, Canada, and the European allies might very well have been found gathered there (although probably not East Indians and Congolese, as depicted in the film).  Many Allied soldiers were sent to Russia, partially to help assist the Imperial (White) Russians against the Bolshevik Communist rebels (Reds).
  • Some reports say that the version presented on the “Guy Maddin Collection” DVD is a different cut from the theatrical and original VHS version, with tinting and intertitles added.  I haven’t been able to confirm whether differences exist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  As his dying act, a lifelong coward strangles a bestial Bolshevik with a length of his own intestine (which is obviously a sausage link).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tale of an obsessive, grieving soldier who thinks he’s found

Short clip from Archangel (French subtitles not in original)

the reincarnation of his lost love in a benighted Russian city where the citizens continue to fight a war that is over would be weird enough if told straight.  Director Guy Maddin exaggerates the already dreamlike quality of this tale by clothing it in the archaic period dress of an early sound film, complete with intertitles describing the action, dubbed voices that are occasionally slightly out of sync, and casually disorienting jumps/glitches in the film.  He pushes this inherently confusing story of terminally confused characters further into strange realms with deliberately surreal elements, such as women warriors going to the front dressed in elegant evening headwear, and even odder sights.

COMMENTS: The city of Archangel seems the perfect place to dream.  Isolated from the Continue reading 10. ARCHANGEL (1990)

9. HELP! HELP! THE GLOBOLINKS [HILFE! HILFE! DIE GLOBOLINKS] (1969)

“Headmasters never sing!” –line sung by the headmaster in Help!  Help!  The Globolinks

DIRECTED BY:  Joachim Hess, from a production of composer/librettist Giancarlo Menotti

FEATURING:  The Hamburg State Opera

PLOT:  In this children’s opera, the world has been invaded by bizarre alien creatures named Globolinks, who are allergic to music.   A bus full of children returning to boarding school breaks down in the middle of a lonely forest, and the students are surrounded by the alien creatures.  Meanwhile, back at the school, the headmaster is infected by one of the aliens, meaning that he will soon turn into a Globolink himself.

globolinks

BACKGROUND:

  • Gian Carlo Menotti, the author of Help! Help! The Globolinks, was a well respected, Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  His most popular work is the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was commissioned specifically to launch the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” television series, and which was shown annually in the United States on television during the Christmas season from 1951-1966.
  • Help!  Help!  The Globolinks, by contrast, was a flop and is rarely performed.  It is usually only mentioned in complete biographies of Menotti.
  • Menotti was a pioneer in adapting opera for telecast, and the film version of Help!  Help!  The Globolinks was originally shown on German television in 1968.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  No doubt, it’s the Globolinks themselves (pictured above), who come in two varieties: one that looks like a wriggling rook from a chess set, and one that looks like an avant-garde ballerina dressed in a full-body dayglo bungee-jumping suit.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A children’s opera about music-loathing aliens is

3 minute clip for Help! Help! The Globolinks courtesy of Naxos (English subtitles available on DVD)

Continue reading 9. HELP! HELP! THE GLOBOLINKS [HILFE! HILFE! DIE GLOBOLINKS] (1969)

8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

Gretchen: “You’re weird.”

Donnie: “Sorry.”

Gretchen: “No, it was a compliment.”

Must See (Theatrical Cut)

-or-
Recommended (Director’s Cut)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURING: Jake Gyllenhaal, , Mary McDonnel, , Drew Barrymore, Kathryn Ross

PLOT:  Troubled teen Donnie sees visions of a six foot tall demonic bunny rabbit named Frank, who demands that he commit acts of vandalism in a sleepy suburban town in 1988.  Donnie narrowly escapes a freak accident when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom after Frank has awoken him and called him away.  Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, on Halloween night, and Donnie attempts to figure out what he can do to save the world while simultaneously dealing with a new girlfriend, bullies, a motivational speaker he sees as a cult leader, and ever-escalating hallucinations.

donnie_darko

BACKGROUND:

  • This was the first feature film for writer/director Richard Kelly.
  • With Barrymore, Swayze and Ross attached, there was a tremendous buzz for the film going into the Sundance Festival.  The movie was not a hit at there, however, and was only picked up for limited theatrical distribution by Newmarket Films at the last moment.
  • Although Donnie Darko was initially a flop on its domestic release, a strong showing overseas helped it to nearly break even.  The film then became a cult hit on video, earning back more than double its production cost.
  • The director’s cut, containing about 20 minutes of extra footage and including pages from the fictional book “The Philosophy of Time Travel,”  was released in 2004.  It was controversial due to the added footage, which  caused some fans to complain that Kelly didn’t seem to understand his own movie.
  • Kelly created a website (now hosted at donniedarkofilm.com), which is structured like a puzzle.  Navigating the website can reveal supplemental material and backstory to the film.
  • Donnie Darko is one of the most talked about films on the Internet, with several competing fan sites and FAQ’s that attempt to clarify and explain the convoluted plot.
  • Followed by a poorly received direct-to-video sequel about Donnie’s sister called S. Darko (2009), which angered many fans.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Frank, the six-foot tall man dressed in a twisted, metallic bunny suit, who only Donnie can see.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDonnie Darko at first appears to be a dizzying collision of genres, themes and ideas.  For the first few reels of the film, the audience can have no conception where the film is heading.  The director drops clues through these opening segments that appear at the time to be simply bizarre, but spark numerous “a-ha!” moments later, when incidents that seemed like throwaway moments or coincidences at the first glance turn out to make a sort of sense.  The identity of Frank, the demonic bunny, is the most thrillingly chilling such moment.  Donnie Darko creates a sense of wonder and mystery throughout its running time, and sparks hope and faith in the watcher that all will be made clear before the curtain drops.   It nests this expectancy inside a bed of genuine empathy for tormented Donnie and his colorful cast of supporting characters.  But perhaps the weirdest thing about Donnie Darko is that it asks us to take its plot at face value; it works very hard to try to convince us that what appear on the surface to be the hallucinations of a paranoid schizophrenic teenager are, in fact, real occurrences with a metaphysical explanation.

Original trailer for Donnie Darko

COMMENTS: Even putting the mindbending plot aside for a moment (we’ll come back to Continue reading 8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)