WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 11/6/2009

A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

IN THEATERS (WIDE RELEASE):

The Men Who Stare at Goats:  George Clooney or no George Clooney and loosely based on fact or not, I doubt anyone will claim that a comedy about a classified experimental squad of U.S. marines who are trained to kill using Jedi-mind tricks isn’t coming at us from a left-of-reality place.  Co-starring offbeat icon Jeff (Tideland) Bridges, Ewan (Stay) MacGregor, and Kevin Spacey.  The Men Who Stare at Goats official site.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Gentlemen Broncos: From Jared Hess (writer/director of Napoleon Dynamite) comes this gross-out satire about a nerdy amateur fantasy writer whose story is stolen by an established author and turned into an awful movie by a small-town director. Critics hated it (“Gentlemen Broncos doesn’t just visit Planet Quirk, it crash lands upon it.”–Peter Howell).  Still, scenes from the film-within-the film, with it’s gay cyclops and flying robotic deer, look at least mildly weird, and it seems anything that almost everyone in the mainstream hates must have something going for it.   On the other hand, Armond White liked it, which may justifiably scare you off.  Gentlemen Broncos official site.

SCREENINGS: NEW YORK CITY (MON, NOV. 9)

Flaherty NYC: Experiments with Animation!:  A program of new experimental animated shorts to be presented at the Anthology Films Archive, with a question and answer session with some of the animators to follow.  Featuring films by Martha Colburn, Jesse Epstein, Kenneth Hung, Jeff Scher, Phil Solomon, Steven Subtonick, and Signe Bauman (The Threatened One). For more information visit The Flaherty Seminar homepage.

NEW ON DVD:

Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin] (1987): Wim Wender’s beautiful, poetic movie about invisible angels roaming West Berlin who dispassionately hear the fears and desires of humans gets the Criterion Collection treatment. One of the best films of the 1980s.  Buy from Amazon.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin] (1987):  See above.  Buy Blu-ray from Amazon.

NEW FREE (LEGITIMATE) MOVIES ON YOUTUBE:

Dracula (1992):  Read our capsule review.  The free viewing expires November 10, so hurry on down!  Watch Dracula (1992) free on YouTube.

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

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)

40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

“I’m more interested in truth than in reality.”—Guillermo del Toro, Time Out interview

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

PLOT:  While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.

Still from Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

<BACKGROUND:

  • Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
  • Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006. With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
  • Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s  head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.


Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth

COMMENTS:  You can have brilliant cinematography, masterful acting, awe-inspiring Continue reading 40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

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

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

Expect to see reviews of Brainiac, the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth [El laberinto del fauno], and more next week.

We’ve been tracking and documenting the weirdest search terms used to locate the site for a while now. However, every now and then something slips by. We looked at Alexa’s web information page the other day, and learned that “weird animal attached to woman’s face” is the top search term people click on to get here. Who knew?

OK, now to that ever-growing reader-suggested review queue (followed by an explanation of why it’s not likely to be cut down significantly any time soon):

Pan’s Labyrinth (next week), Greasers Palace (substituted for Institute Benjamenta), Waking Life, Survive Style 5+, The Dark Backward, The Short Films of David Lynch, Santa Sangre, Dead Man, Inland Empire, Monday (assuming I can find an English language version), The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Barton Fink, What? (Diary of Forbidden Dreams), Meatball Machine, Xtro, Basket Case, Suicide Club, O Lucky Man! , Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (if it’s released), Takashi Miike’s GozuTales of Ordinary Madness, and The Wayward Cloud, Kwaidan, Six-String Samurai, and Andy Warhol’s Trash.

OK, that’s a long list of titles to cover, and it’s not likely to get much shorter very soon.  When I woke up this morning, I noticed there was a bit of a chill in the air, a chill that spells: November.  And to any dedicated movie-review webmaster, November means one thing and one thing only: “I only have two months left to cover all those 2009 releases I skipped over so that I can create a meaningful Weirdest Movies of 2009 list.”  Just glancing through our weekly Weird Horizons, I noticed that there are at least eight high priority 2009 releases that we never covered because they never made it to a theater near us.  That’s not to mention a dozen or so less interesting movies, and a few intriguing movies that have yet to show up on DVD.

In other words, although we’d like to whittle that reader-review list down, we’re making the primary focus in the next two months to cover Weird 2009.  That doesn’t mean we won’t be throwing in older movies, including reader suggestions, into the mix: we’ll just be tackling them at a slightly slower rate than our usual glacial pace.

SATURDAY SHORT: HALLOWEEN TRASH (2007)

What the heck is a Shaye St. John? From the evidence provided in this short, it’s a scary, androgynous mask wearing figure that likes to film itself verbally abusing passing trick-or-treaters, then remix the resulting footage to make it look like a low-grade acid trip.  Or maybe it’s a robot?  Maybe its My Space page would help?

Oh, and happy Halloween, you luscious piece of trash!

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 10/30/2009

A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

The House of the Devil:  A satanic creepfest set in the 1980s, which (word has it) plays out like a forgotten VHS era occult gem.  Maybe not weird, but clearly offbeat, and the presence of cult actress Mary (Eating Raoul) Woronov doesn’t hurt anything.  Opening in L.A. with limited national distribution thereafter.  In a sign of the times, it’s also already gotten a “pre-theatrical” release via video on demand (rent)House of the Devil official site.

NEW ON DVD:

Adult Swim in a Box (Aqua Teen Hunger Force Volume 2 / Space Ghost Season 3 / Moral Oral Season 1 / Robot Chicken Season 2 / Metalocalypse Season 1 / Sealab Season 2): What twentysomething hipster doesn’t dream of finding this 7-disc set and a one pound brick of medical-grade marijuana (with prescription) under their tree on Christmas morning? Contains and extra disc of failed pilots from the boundary-pushing late night cartoon lineup. Buy from Amazon.

Afterwards (2008): A New York lawyer meets a doctor (John Malkovich) who can foretell who is going to die. Reviewers used adjectives such as lyrical, allegorical, boring and pretentious to describe this arthouse non-hit that nonetheless may be to some tastes. Buy from Amazon.

Death in the Garden [Mort en ce jardin] (1956):  This minor Buñuel adventure piece from his Mexican Marxist period concerns conflicts between gold prospectors and the state. The director’s Surrealist tendencies were on the backburner during this period, so this one is for dedicated Buñuelists and Communist sympathizers only. Buy from Amazon .

Fear(s) of the Dark [Peur’s du Noir] (2007): A French horror anthology containing six black and white animated shorts dealing with themes of fear and night. As with all anthologies, the films likely vary as to quality and bizarreness. Buy from Amazon.

Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut) (2009): Six hours of interviews and clips spread out over three discs tell the entire story of the famous British comedy troupe that made absurdism fashionable through the 1970s. A must-get for dedicated fans. Buy from Amazon.

Night of the Creeps (1986): Long-anticipated released of the intentional campy cult 1980s horror/sci-fi flick that simultaneously sends up and pays honest tribute to teen sex comedies, alien invasion pics and zombie movies. Buy from Amazon

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut): See the description above in the DVD section. Buy Blu-ray from Amazon

Night of the Creeps (1986): See the description above in the DVD section. Buy Blu-ray from Amazon

The Prisoner: The Complete Series: The classically Kafka-esque, paranoid, psychedelic-era BBC TV series about a retired spy who finds himself held prisoner by the government on a surreal island makes it’s welcome debut on Blu-ray. Buy from Amazon.

NEW FREE (LEGITIMATE) MOVIES ON YOUTUBE:

Sex Madness (1938): From the demented mind of Dwain Esper (Reefer Madness, Maniac) comes another hysterically exploitative “warn your children!” anti-classic, wherein a promiscuous chorus girl catches syphilis from the casting couch.  Watch Sex Madness free on YouTube.

HAUNTED HOUSES (INDIANAPOLIS AREA):

The Asylum House is running a series of high-tech, interactive hauntings in the Indy area. Our own Alfred Eaker is involved in a mysterious, occult capacity with the Crypt of Shadows.  Check ’em out for a frightful time if you’re in the area; this is professional stuff.

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

On Friday nights in Indiana during the 1960’s and 70’s, you invited your best friend over to spend the night (Denny), pleaded with Mom to fix a tray of pizza rolls and, out of courtesy, asked to stay up late for a night of Nightmare Theater with Sammy Terry. Of course, Mom always allowed it, as you knew she would, fixed those pizza rolls, brought in the blankets and left the two of you to your night of magic because she sure as heck was not going to watch those “scary movies’.

The creaking of the coffin filled the house as you watched, transfixed, as Sammy Terry and his spider, George, emerged to host a night of classic horror.  Usually, it was one of the Universal movies starring Karloff, Lugosi, or Chaney, Jr.

Bride of  Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Room, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Creature from the Black Lagoon were frequently shown favorites.  Quite a few of the Val Lewton RKOs were shown regularly, as well as the occasional Jack Arnold film, such as Monster on the Campus, Tarantula, or The Incredible Shrinking Man. My own personal favortie was Ulmer’s The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi battling out to strains of the Beethoven 7th. If the films shown on Nightmare Theater were  not always approached by the filmmakers as high art (i.e. The Wolfman) , then there was certainly consummate craftsmanship that one always felt Sammy approved of.

In between the features, Sammy Terry would discuss the movies, make jokes with George and other regulars (Ghost Girl, Ghoulsbie) , have an occasional guest, talk about the Pacers, or show off the crayola drawings of Sammy and George that local children would send to WTTV 4.  Sammy had an inimitable laugh that would send shivers down the 8 year old spine.

If you made it to the end of the night (and frequently did not, hence the blankets)  Sammy would retreat to his coffin and bestow his wish of “Many Pleasant Nightmares.”  You knew, with excitement and dread, that he would return the following Friday.

There were lots of local urban myths about Sammy Terry and we were all too happy to spread those myths to fellow classmates since Sammy was a favorite subject.  Of course, this was long before the days of cable TV, VCRs, and even color TV (at least until the mid 70’s at our house) so the local WTTV 4 Station ruled the roost out of the four available TV Continue reading NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

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