Category Archives: Canonically Weird (The List)

128. YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)

“The Lennon/McCartney songs used in the film seem to have been conceived and brought forth in the pure simple spirit of mystical innocence, like the works of Chagall. And, like Chagall’s works, the film tries to include everything in the world to make up its own cosmos. The animation style ranges from storybook simplicity to pop art and psychedelic shimmer.”–Punch magazine

Must See

DIRECTED BY: George Dunning

FEATURING: Voices of Paul Angelis, John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten, Dick Emery

PLOT: The music-hating Blue Meanies freeze the residents of the idyllic undersea kingdom of Pepperland. Only Admiral Fred escapes in his Yellow Submarine; he travels to Liverpool to enlist the assistance of the Beatles to deal with the threat. After a sailing through several surreal seas, the lads eventually reach Pepperland and use the power of music to defeat the menace.

Still from Yellow Submarine (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Yellow Submarine was animator/director George Dunning’s only feature length work. His job here consisted mainly of supervising the 200+ contributing artists who worked on the film.
  • In 1968 the Beatles were disenchanted with movies after the mediocre reception to their self-produced television special Magical Mystery Tour (1967). They were still under contract to United Artists to produce another film and, despite the fact that they weren’t happy with the Americanized Beatles animated TV show, they saw lending their images and four new songs to a cartoon movie as a good way to fulfill their bargain. They liked the finished product well enough to agree to appear in a live-action epilogue.
  • The script was co-written by Erich Segal, a professor of classics at Yale who had never even heard of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” when he was hired for the project. Segal later wrote the deplorable novel Love Story, which was turned into an even more deplorable movie.
  • Liverpool poet Roger McGough also worked on the script, supplying many of the jokes and puns, but did not receive a screenwriting credit.
  • Peter Batten, who voiced George, was discovered by the producers in a pub and cast because he sounded like Harrison. He was later found to have deserted the British army during WWII and was arrested before filming was completed; his remaining lines were recorded by Paul Angelis (who also voiced Ringo).
  • The “Hey Bulldog” segment was cut for American theatrical release.
  • A 3-D motion capture remake was planned by Disney but scrapped in 2011, to the delight of thinking people everywhere.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking out a favorite frame from Yellow Submarine is like picking a favorite note from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The psychedelic submersible of the title should probably be featured, but what bizarre pop-art backdrop should it be floating past—the gray and grimy industrial wastes of Liverpool, the optical netherworld of the Sea of Holes, or the lysergic bestiary of the Sea of Monsters? We selected the moment the sub transforms itself into a Zippo lighter to re-enact an old slapstick routine with a giant purple boxing beast, but we wouldn’t put up an argument with just about any random image anyone wanted to champion.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blurring the line between a children’s story and a hashish-fueled daydream, Yellow Submarine is a riot of color and visual imagination sure to delight kindergartners and stoners alike. You don’t even have to picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies—over a hundred animators worked for almost a year to paint those vistas for you better than your feeble imagination could ever manage.

Original trailer for Yellow Submarine

COMMENTS: We often think of the Sixties in terms of revolutions: the sexual revolution, the civil Continue reading 128. YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)

127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)

AKA Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream One Calls Human Life

Recommended

“We wanted to give both the banal side of being a student and the magical side of passing through a blackboard. So you have extremes from the banality to the imaginary, and that was part of the voyage that we created in this film.”–The Quay brothers on Institute Benjamenta

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

FEATURING: Marc Rylance, ,

PLOT: Having no ambition in life, Jakob applies to a school that trains men to be servants, run by a brother and sister with the surname Benjamenta. Although Jakob fails to fit in well at the institute, pleading for his own room and quarreling with another student, both headmaster Herr Benjamenta and Lisa, the instructor, take a personal interest in him. Eventually Jakob develops an ambiguously sexual relationship with Lisa, and his presence changes the Institute in ways imperceptible to outsiders.

Still from Institute Benjamenta (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Quay brothers, identical twins, began their filmmaking career as successful surrealist stop motion animators, following in the footsteps of their confessed idol Jan Svankmajer. Institute Benjamenta was both their first feature length film and their first movie to use live actors.
  • The Quays were born in the United States but after studying at the Royal College of Art and developing a working relationship with Channel Four, who commissioned their seminal early short films, they are now based in London.
  • The story was loosely based on the 1919 novella Jakob von Gunten by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Three of the Quay’s previous shorts were also based on Walser stories.
  • The Quays asked composer Lech Jankowski to create the score for the movie first, then shot the scenes of the film to fit the existing music.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A bullet’s slow-motion journey through a forest, clipping the bark off an oak and passing through a pine cone, alternated with shots of Alice Krige’s stockinged feet.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come, let the servant monkey enroll you in the school of abnegation. Make your way to the hidden chamber and discover the goldfish at its heart. The Institute’s secret lessons are unlearnable by those trapped outside of its dream walls.


Original trailer for Institute Benjamenta

COMMENTS: Institute Benjamenta begins with a German woman intoning a series of Continue reading 127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)

126. THE RED SQUIRREL [LA ADRILLA ROJA] (1993)

“They are also cunning, humble and light, like flies. Liars, shy but strategic, sinuous, and very capable of weaving clever plots behind men’s backs.”–TV commentator describing red squirrels in a dream in The Red Squirrel

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nancho Novo, Emma Suárez, Carmelo Gómez

PLOT: A despondent musician is working up the courage to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge when suddenly a motorcycle crashes through the railing next to him. Going down to the beach to investigate he finds the victim is a beautiful woman who has survived the fall with no lasting damage, but is suffering from amnesia. He convinces her that they are lovers and takes her to a campground to continue the charade; but does she have a secret past that may come back to haunt them both?

Still from The Red Squirrel [La Ardilla Roja] (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Red Squirrel played out-of-competition in Cannes, but won the “Award of the Youth” (an award given by jurors who are 18-23 years old).
  • Stanley Kubrick was an admirer of the film and, according to rumor, recommended Medem to Stephen Spielberg to direct The Mask of Zorro; Medem rejected the opportunity.
  • The Red Squirrel did not find a theatrical distributor in North America, and might have remained nearly unknown if the arthouse successes of Lovers of the Arctic Circle and Sex and Lucia hadn’t sparked interest in Medem’s earlier movies. The film was released on VHS in the US, but although it was released in Europe it did not appear on Region 1 DVD until 2012.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t reveal the precise moment we’ve selected as The Red Squirrel‘s indelible image, because we think it will hit you harder if it comes as a surprise. We will say that it takes place in a dream confrontation on a barren windswept plain, and point out that we love it because it’s representative of the way that Medem builds up an almost unbearable tension, then breaks it with the unexpected interjection of absurd comedy.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With its tragically creepy protagonist seeking to recreate a woman who may not be what she seems into his idealized love, The Red Squirrel plays like a postmodern Spanish version of Vertigo, only with obscure portents of squirrelly doom and comically absurd dream sequences.


Brief clip from The Red Squirrel

COMMENTS: Obsession is always a promising starting place for a movie plot; so is mystery. If Continue reading 126. THE RED SQUIRREL [LA ADRILLA ROJA] (1993)

125. LITTLE OTIK (2000)

Otesánek; AKA Greedy Guts

“I do not work with intentions… That has nothing to do with freedom of the imagination… My preference is certainly for subsequent interpretation rather than intention. In Little Otik, the child devours its ‘parents.’ Otik is the product of their desire, their rebellion against nature. This is not a child in the real sense of the world, but the materialization of desire, of a rebellion. That is the tragic dimension of the human destiny. It is impossible to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the proper subject of freedom.”–Jan Svankamjer, 2006 interview with Peter Hames

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristina Adamcová, Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl

PLOT: Karel and Bozena are an infertile couple obsessed with becoming pregnant; one day, as a joke, Karel brings his wife a tree stump that looks a little like a child, but the woman immediately begins treating it as if it were a real baby. Bozena goes so far as to fake a pregnancy, and the husband is shocked when the piece of wood actually comes to life. Parenthood proves difficult when they discover in that the wooden child needs to be fed and has an insatiable craving for red meat; meanwhile, their sexually curious ten-year old neighbor is also obsessed with little Otik and begins to suspect his secret…

Still from Little Otik (2000)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is a modern adaptation of the Eastern European fairy tale “Otesánek,” as collected by the folklorist K.J. Erben. The original fable is recounted in a storybook-animated film-within-a-film.
  • Jan Svankmajer’s late wife, the painter Eva Švankmajerová, had illustrated “Otesánek” for a children’s book in the 1970s.
  • Per Svankmajer, in Czech the word “otesánek” (which is derived from the verb “to hew” plus a diminutive “-ánek” which denotes a child) is used for a person “who devours and digests everything (not only food).”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Crazy-eyed Bozena breastfeeding a log in maternal bliss—particularly when the camera zooms in to show a closeup of Otik hungrily suctioning milk through his stump. (As a footnote, one of Little Otik‘s iconic images isn’t actually in the movie. A bizarre still of Alzbetka licking a fried egg was featured prominently in the Otik‘s promotional material, but that precise shot does not appear in the film).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This modernized fairy-tale adaptation about an insatiable man-eating tree stump baby is actually Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional and accessible story (by far). Of course, in Svankmajer’s world, a conventional narrative includes scenes where street vendors fish infants out of tanks, wrap them in newspaper and sell them to passersby. There’s something seminal about this freaky film that mixes black comedy with dashes of horror and flecks of surrealism; it’s an excellent, comprehensible-yet-mysterious entry-level bizarre film for the neophyte weirdster.


American trailer for Little Otik

COMMENTS: When erotically curious youngster Alzbetka hides a textbook on sexual Continue reading 125. LITTLE OTIK (2000)

124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)

“When was the last time a gynecologist was in a movie, even as a figure of fun? There’s something taboo there; something strange and difficult.”–David Cronenberg

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING:

PLOT: Elliot and Beverly Mantle are brilliant twin gynecologists, specializing in fertility, with a client base of rich women. Elliot, the more outgoing of the pair, will seduce a client, and then Beverly will also romance her, pretending to be his brother. The twins delicately balanced psychological co-dependency is disturbed when Beverly falls in love with one of their conquests, a pill-popping actress with a deformed uterus.

Still from Dead Ringers

BACKGROUND:

  • Dead Ringers is loosely based on a a real-life case involving twin gynecologists. Their story was fictionalized and turned into a best-selling novel (“Twins“) by Bari Wood and Jackie Geasland, which became the basis for the screenplay by Cronenberg and Norman Snider.
  • William Hurt and Robert De Niro each passed on the roles of the Mantle twins.
  • Irons’ performance as twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle nabbed him Best Actor awards from the New York and Chicago film critics associations and a runner-up prize from the LA film critics; but the project was too strange to be endorsed by the Academy Awards, which procrastinated until the following year to recognize the actor for his role as accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (Irons credits Dead Ringers for an “assist” in nabbing him that statuette).
  • Worried that it might not be weird enough, we initially declined to place Dead Ringers on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies—but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won its section in our third readers choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The blood-red scrubs narrowly beat out the bizarrely barbed “instruments for working on mutant women” as the movie’s most disturbing medical prop—largely because the twins were presumably sane and sober when they chose this surgical garb. Both props appear together onscreen in a scene where Beverly, high on downers, makes a shambles of the operating room, even snatching off the patient’s gas mask to take a whiff of anesthetic himself.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When the plot synopsis contains the words “twin gynecologists,” you know you’ll be traveling into territory off the beaten path. When it’s David Cronenberg directing a story about twin gynecologists, you can expect something even further out there. While Dead Ringers is a drama, it’s a drama for horror movie fans, one that’s ultimately creepy and unnerving enough to rise to the level of “weird.”


Original trailer for Dead Ringers

COMMENTS: However unlikely Cronenberg’s tale of obsession, drug abuse, and gynecology

Continue reading 124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)

123. THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

QUESTIONER: What are the most common comparisons to other films that you hear?

CORY MCABEE: There’ve been a few. Because it’s in black and white people sometimes say Eraserhead, but other than the fact that it’s in black and white I don’t really see much… [laughter]. I get a lot of “cross-betweens,” like “a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Grapes of Wrath.” [laughter]. That’s a very large area to cross between…

–Cory McAbee at an American Astronaut Q&A session

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge

PLOT: Astronaut Samuel Curtis arrives on the asteroid Ceres, where he meets his old friend the Blueberry Pirate, enters a dance contest, and trades a cat for a Real Live Girl (who consists of cloned cells in a box). His commission requires him to go to Jupiter where he will swap the Real Live Girl for the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, whom he will then take to the all-female planet Venus to exchange for the remains of an expired stud. Along his journey he is pursued by maniacal “birthday boy” (and film narrator) Professor Hess, a man who can only kill if he has no reason to do so.

Still from The American Astronaut (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Writer/director Cory McAbee is the songwriter and lead singer of the band The Billy Nayer Show; the then-current lineup of the band (minus McAbee) appears in the movie in the Ceres dance contest sequence.
  • McAbee was working on a script entitled Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest when he got the idea for American Astronaut and decided it was the more interesting project. He completed the script for Werewolf Hunters in 2002, but negotiations with financiers fell through. Pre-production resumed in 2011, but the actor cast as the lead died, and the project is again on hold.
  • The American Astronaut got its limited theatrical release September 21, 2001, only a little more than a week after the 9/11 tragedy.
  • After our first viewing we declined to place The American Astronaut on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies immediately (read our shortsighted initial review), but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won our third readers choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast dressed as the messenger god Mercury in an art-deco helmet and thick black eyeliner, raising the roughnecks of Jupiter’s morale by performing a song and dance number in a spotlight on a stage in a cavernous warehouse.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The fact that it’s an absurdist musical comedy space western, for one thing. The American Astronaut is an incredibly personal affair—Cory McAbee wrote, directed, starred, composed the songs, helped paint the backdrops, and probably sold the popcorn on opening night. McAbee brings a particular and peculiar set of personal preoccupations to the project: space operas, psychobilly, Monty Python, German Expressionism, cowboy movies, Lewis Carroll, film noir, , the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, Ed Wood, and Dadaism, among others. It’s a galaxy of influences with competing gravities, and whether they appear as a meaningful constellation or just a meaningless mass of lights may depend on where the viewer is standing. The movie probably makes the most sense when seen from Mars.


Original trailer for The American Astronaut

COMMENTS: Since it’s such a spaced-out movie, it’s appropriate that The American Continue reading 123. THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

122. BARBARELLA (1968)

Recommended

AKA Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy

“Barbarella, pyschedella,
There’s a kind of cockleshell about you…”
–Lyrics from Barbarella‘s theme song

DIRECTED BY: Roger Vadim

FEATURING: Jane Fonda, , Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau, ,

PLOT: A wide-eyed aviatrix known as Barbarella must travel to the outer reaches of the peaceful galaxy to stop rebellious scientist Durand-Durand from unleashing his weapon, the Positronic Ray. She is rescued from a gang of dolls with razor-sharp metal teeth by a man who teaches her the ways of physical love, then befriends a blind angel. Her search leads her into conflict with the Grand Tyrant in a sinful city of the future.

Still from Barbarella (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the French comic series of the same name, Barbarella‘s screenplay features her creator Jean-Claude Forest among its many credits, as well as novelist  (who also worked on the scripts for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, among others).
  • The entire film was shot on a soundstage in Italy, meaning that the wondrous, complex sets were built from scratch for every scene. An oil wheel projector was used to create the trippy, amorphous backgrounds that visually expanded the limited space into larger territory. Several of the Italian actors are dubbed in English.
  • Among the many cut sequences from the final product is a titillating love scene between Jane Fonda and Anita Pallenberg. Publicity stills of the scene exist but it was never actually filmed.
  • At the time Barbarella was shot, star Jane Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, known as the man who discovered (and married/divorced) the young Brigitte Bardot.
  • The bands Duran Duran and Matmos took their names from this film.
  • Barbarella was a flop on release. It was re-released in 1977 to cash in on the space opera craze started by Star Wars, with most of the nudity removed to create a PG rated version entitled Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Fonda’s titillating anti-gravity striptease over the opening credits is the highlight, or her sweaty orgasmic torture under the deadly Excessive Machine. For me the most remarkable visual moment is the Great Tyrant’s Chamber of Dreams, wherein Barbarella runs around in confusion, backed by fantastic lava-lamp patterns and floating bubbles as a rambling xylophone score tinkles over the action.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Merging elements of sex-romp comedy, ludicrous science fiction, and death-defying action-adventure with memorably psychedelic imagery, Barbarella is a series of disjointed sequences that get stranger and stranger as the story progresses. The wild costumes, over-saturated color schemes, goofy dialogue, and sly winks to the audience are punctuated with weird little details, from deadly animatronic dolls to a hair-raising futuristic sex scene with minimal physical contact.


Original trailer from Barbarella (1968)

COMMENTS: Set in a wildly distant future where war and violence no longer exist, everyone has Continue reading 122. BARBARELLA (1968)