CAPSULE: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Wes Craven

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae

PLOT: An anthropologist travels to Haiti in search of the legendary “zombie drug” and gets mixed up in voodoo and third world politics.

serpent_and_the_rainbow

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are three or four vivid hallucination/dream sequences in The Serpent and the Rainbow that are unique visual treats.  (The most unusual and striking vision is a disembodied zombie hand crawling into a bowl of soup).  Craven, however, uses only the canonical scare iconography—corpses and skulls, blood, snakes and spiders—which makes the scenes add up to standard, if well executed, nightmare sequences.  Coupled with an ordinary horror movie plot (although it’s disguised well for the first two-thirds of the film), Serpent is a film with some fantastic scenes, but not weird one.

COMMENTSSerpent is an above-average horror outing, although its ultimately a mild disappointment because the black magic premise has so much unrealized potential.  The voodoo milieu the civilized doctor encounters in Haiti is memorable and spooky; the setting is also unique in that it mixes witchcraft with politics by having the main villain be both a powerful warlock and an officer of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s secret police.  In the end, unfortunately, Craven can’t figure out how to keep the momentum rolling into a proper climax to its interesting premise.  We end up with a formula horror finale where Zakes Mokae’s brilliantly sadistic Dargent Peytraud transforms into a poor man’s Freddy Kruger.  The eye-rolling climax comes complete with false deaths, catch phrases, an ironic comeuppance, and other silliness. 

The movie was adapted from a memoir of the same name by real-life Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who actually went to Haiti to investigate the real zombie drug.  To make this serious scientific book into a horror movie seems a bit like adapting “A Brief History of Time” as a space opera.  Davis called the film “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history”; it’s not nearly that bad (in fact, it’s pretty good), but his frustration is understandable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things speed towards an ‘Omen’ finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.” – Desson Howe, Washington Post

7. EL TOPO (1970)

AKA The Mole (literal translation)

“Q: You’re creating this story right now.

A: Yes, this very moment.  It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.” -Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Conversations with Jodorowsky”

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: El Topo, a figure dressed in black and carrying his nude son on horseback behind him, uses his supernatural shooting ability to free a town from the rule of a sadistic Colonel.  He then abandons his son for the Colonel’s Woman, who convinces him to ride deep into the desert to face off against four mystical gunfighters.  All of the gunfighters die, but El Topo is betrayed, shot, and dragged into a cave by a society of deformed people, who ask the outlaw turned pacifist to help them build a tunnel so they can escape to a dusty western town run by degenerate religious fascists.

el-topo

BACKGROUND:

  • El Topo is considered to be the first “midnight movie,” the first movie to be screened in theaters almost exclusively after 12 AM.  Although the heyday of the midnight movie has past, it was a clever marketing gimmick that stressed the unusual nature of the film and positioned El Topo as an event rather than just another flick.
  • El Topo was famously championed and promoted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
  • Due to an acrimonious dispute over ownership rights between Jodorowsky and Allen Klein, the film was withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, during which time it could only be seen on bootlegged VHS copies.  The scarcity of screenings vaulted El Topo‘s already powerful reputation into a legendary one.  Jodorowsky and Klein reconciled in 2004 and the film had a legal DVD release in 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGEEl Topo is a continuous stream of unforgettable images; any frame chosen at random inflames the imagination.  My personal favorite is the lonsghot after El Topo kills third master gunfighter, where his body lies bleeding in his own watering hole while the rest of the landscape is littered with rabbit corpses.   The iconic image, however, is  El Topo riding off on horseback with a naked child sitting behind him, holding a black umbrella over his head.  This image is particularly representative because it shows not only Jodorowsky’s gift for composition, but his penchant for shamelessly borrowing from other sources of inspiration: the concept is pinched from the most surreal moment of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In the first scene, a man clad in black carrying an

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Original trailer for El Topo

umbrella rides through an endless desert waste.  Behind him in the saddle is a male child, naked except for a cowboy hat.  The man stops his horse by a lonely hitching post in the sand, ties the umbrella to the post, and hands the boy a teddy bear and a locket and a photograph.  The man says, “Today you are seven years old.  You are a man.  Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.”  He pulls out a flute and plays while the naked child follows his instructions.  What makes El Topo weird is that this is the most normal and comprehensible thing that happens the film.

COMMENTS:  In Judges 14, Samson (the Hebrew version of Hercules) is attacked by a Continue reading 7. EL TOPO (1970)

6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Su-jeong Lim, Rain

PLOT: Young-goon, a young woman who believes herself to be a cyborg, is institutionalized after a gruesome and nearly fatal attempt to recharge her batteries.  Among the characters she meets in the mental hospital is Il-soon, a kleptomaniac who steals not only small items, but character traits from the other patients.  Young-goon enlists Il-soon’s aid to help her discover and complete her purpose as a cyborg, while he finds himself coming to care about her—and seeks to find a solution to her troubles that will remain true to her delusion.

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

BACKGROUND:

  • I’m a Cyborg was director Chan-wook Park’s first film after completing his popular and ultra-violent “Vengeance Trilogy” [Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2004)].   It was the #1 film in Korea in it’s opening week, but tanked quickly thereafter and ultimately became a box-office disappointment.
  • The idea for the movie came to Park after he had a dream about “bullets coming out of a girl’s body.”
  • The mail lead, Jeong Ji-Hoon, is a top Korean pop music star who records under the name “Rain.”  He makes his movie acting debut in Cyborg.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The audience-pleasing image is Young-goon sprouting jets from her ratty sneakers so she can elevate to kiss Il-soon.  The most enduring image, however, is the vision of Young-goon as a combat cyborg, with bullets shooting from her fingertips and spent shell casings ejecting from her open mouth.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The main characters—a woman who self-destructs

Trailer for I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK

because she believes herself to be a robot, and a kleptomaniac with a fondness for bunny rabbit masks—would, at the very least, qualify as quirky.  Add elaborate hallucinatory sequences, including a massacre of the hospital doctors set to the rhythm of a gentle chamber waltz, and a flight to the Swiss Alps in the grasp of a giant ladybug accompanied by yodeling, and the movie becomes fantastic.  But what makes it weird is that the director takes the principals’ delusions at emotional face value, never allowing reality to bully and overcome his madmen’s subjective worlds.

COMMENTS:  We can easily imagine the 2009 Hollywood remake of Saibogujiman Continue reading 6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006)

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , , Chris Columbus

PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

adaptation

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses.  Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman.  When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.  Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYLarry Fessenden

FEATURING: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider

PLOT: Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam—still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend—finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird. The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story. It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography when Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast. There’s enough odd atmosphere to make the film of interest to weirdophiles as well as indie fans, but it’s not relentlessly bizarre enough to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

COMMENTSHabit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters). The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story. The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary.

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role. She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

AKA Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [dubbed and edited version]

“I love images that make me dream, but I don’t like someone dreaming for me.” –Georges Franjou

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Georges Franjou

FEATURING: Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli

PLOT:  The face of the daughter of a brilliant plastic surgeon is horrifically scarred in an automobile accident.  The doctor makes her pretend to be dead until she can be cured; she floats about his Gothic mansion wearing an expressionless face mask, accompanied by the howling of the dogs her father keeps in pens to perform skin grafting experiments on.  When several pretty young girls go missing, the police and the girl’s fiancé start to suspect the doctor.
eyes_without_a_face

BACKGROUND:

  • Eyes Without a Face was adapted for film by the famous screenwriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also co-wrote Les Diaboliques (1954) and Vertigo (1958), from a novel by Jean Redon.
  • Director Georges Franjou has stated that he was told to avoid blood (so as not to upset the French censors), animal cruelty (so as not to upset the English censors), and mad scientists (to avoid offending the German censors). Remarkably, all three of these elements appear in the final product, but the film did not run into censorship problems.
  • The film did poorly on its initial release, partly because the surgical scene was so shocking and gruesome for its day.  It was released in the US, in a dubbed and slightly edited version, as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, paired on a double bill with the strange but now nearly-forgotten exploitation flick The Manster.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The mask itself, the heart of the film.  There are several other worthy candidates, including the haunting final scene with Christiane surrounded by freed birds. Also noteworthy is the facial transplant scene, which is in some ways the centerpiece of this film (and comes almost exactly at the midpoint).  An anesthetized woman’s face is peeled off like the skin of a grape, in surprisingly graphic detail.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At least until the very final scene, Eyes Without a Face is not

Original trailer for Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face)

obviously weird at all–in fact, much of Franjou’s accomplishment is in making the fabulous, far-fetched story seems coldly clinical and real.  But what gives the movie it’s staying power and makes it get under your skin is the strength of the simple images, particularly Christiane’s blank mask, which hides everything: both the horrors of her past, now written on her face in scar tissue, and her current motivations.  The imagery seems to reach far beyond the confines of the story and speak to something deeper–but what?  For this reason, the most common critical adjective used in conjunction with the film has been “poetic,” and the director Franjou is most often compared to is Jean Cocteau.

COMMENTSEyes without a Face is a sinister variation on the Frankenstein theme that Continue reading 5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

CAPSULE: ANGEL HEART (1987)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet

PLOT:  1950s private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by a suave, sartorial client (Robert DeNiro) to track down a crooner; as the search takes him from Harlem to New Orleans, Angel finds that every lead he interviews ends up dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With its (sometimes literally) dripping atmosphere, mysterious dreamlike flashbacks, and a conclusion that will chill the blood if you don’t see it coming, Angel Heart appeals to lovers of the weird. In the end, however, this macabre film noir is simply too conventional to be weird, a standard detective story with the supernatural grafted onto it.  The fact that the mystery is completely and satisfactorily resolved at the end leaves us little wonder to carry forward.

COMMENTS:   There was one throwaway scene that almost tipped Angel Heart into the weird column.  Angel is standing on the beach at Coney Island, backing off from the oncoming tide, wearing a plastic nose shield on his sunglasses (more than a little reminiscent of the bandage Jack Nicholson wore in Chinatown) on an overcast day, and talking to the wife of a carnival geek as she soaks her varicose veins in the Atlantic.  Now that’s a situation you don’t find yourself in everyday!  Had there been more subtly off-kilter scenes like this peppered throughout, Angel Heart could have been a weird classic.

On its original release, the film was notorious for the bloody, MPAA-enraging sex scene with recent ex-Cosby kid Lisa Bonet.  The scene still packs a wallop today, and is even more memorable because it isn’t wholly gratuitous, but has a horrifying significance within the context of the story.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Angel Heart,’ with its stigmatic sets and satanic text, makes the perfect cult movie just as the Rev. Jones made the perfect batch of Kool-Aid. It already has assured itself a limited audience, as most moviegoers will be repulsed by the needless gore, including sudden open-heartsurgery and assorted other murder-mutilations. The lot overwhelms this devilishly clever detective allegory, a supernatural variation on ’50s pulp mysteries.” –Rita Kempley, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)

Ein Toter hing im Netz, AKA A Corpse Hangs in the Web [literal translation], It’s Hot in Paradise, and others   

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Böttger

FEATURING: Alex D’Arcy,  , & buxom German exhibitionists

PLOT:  A plane carrying team of eight dancing girls, along with one male and one female manager, crash into the ocean en route to Singapore.  There they find a cabin with the body of a man hanging in a giant spiderweb.  The lone male is bitten by a spider and turns into a spider-human hybrid, who then briefly terrorizes the girls at a party to celebrate their impending rescue after two men row ashore.



BACKGROUND:

  • With some brief nudity included, this German/Yugoslavian co-production was originally released in the US as a sexploitation feature under the title It’s Hot in Paradise.  After the nudity was clipped out, the movie was re-released under the present title and marketed as a horror film.
  • The movie was featured in the tenth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (show 1011).
  • Horrors of Spider Island is believed to be in the public domain.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The puppet-like evil spider, with it’s large, shiny, almost cute eyes and clawed hands.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDHorrors of Spider Island takes place in an alternate universe that’s nothing like our own.  The poor dubbing, including a mangled deep south accent, immediately takes us out of reality and makes suspension of disbelief impossible.  The plot is thin as a wire, made to hang chauvinistic male fantasies on, and often seems to be improvised on the spur of the moment.  Horrors of Spider Island already seems like a half-remembered bad dream, even as you’re still watching it.

4 minute clip from the film, including spider attack, courtesy of Something Weird video

COMMENTSHorrors of Spider Island is a movie that falls into the “so-bad-it’s-weird” category.  It’s quite obvious that the film was made with little Continue reading 4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)

CAPSULE: GRAVEYARD ALIVE: A ZOMBIE NURSE IN LOVE (2003)

Beware

PLOT: A dowdy nurse contracts an odd strain of the zombie virus which changes her into
a flesh-eating sex maniac.


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are plenty of weird elements in this low-budget B&W horror comedy, from slightly out-of-sync dubbing to deliberate overacting to Eraserhead-inspired dream sequences, but they seem forced and shallow, like an attempt by the filmmakers to distance themselves from the thin material they have to work with.

COMMENTS:  One of the hardest things to do in the movie universe is to make deliberate camp.  Yet, it’s a pitfall that beginning directors seem to fall into over and over.  They want the audience to realize that they are too talented to be making a silly zombie nurse movie, when what the audience really wants is to not notice the direction and enjoy a silly zombie nurse movie.  There is some talent on display here, especially in the black and white photography, but overall the humor is alternately too subtle and too broad to work.  It’s obvious that the filmmakers and the crew and actors (who worked for free) enjoyed themselves tremendously, and that do-it-yourself enthusiasm comes across on screen and makes the movie seem less of a failure than it might otherwise have been.

Parts of the movie are obviously inspired by the look and feel of the films of fellow Canadian Guy Maddin.  In fact, the movie was originally intended to be silent (which may help explain some of the mugging for the camera from the guy who played “handsome” doctor).  The dubbing was added later by different voice actors, after the director and producers decided Graveyard Alive didn’t work as a modern silent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You have to be able to master the genre you plan to mock, or your movie will die of shame… Merely parading bad actors spouting cretinous dialogue does not make a movie funny or effective. Striking a pose and chewing the scenery does not create a character on screen. Deliberately applying cheeseball makeup does not turn an actor into a campy horror zombie.” -Bruce Kirkland, Jam! Magazine

3. REPULSION (1965)

“I hate doing this to a beautiful woman.” -Attributed to cameraman Gil Taylor during the filming of Repulsion

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Deneuve

PLOT:  At first glance, manicurist Carole (Catherine Deneuve) seems merely to be painfully shy.  The early portions of the film follow her in her daily routine, and we grow to realize that her mental problems go much deeper: she daydreams, she seems to be barely on speaking terms with the outside world, she is dependent on her sister (who wants to have a life of her own) to care for her, and she is repulsed by men.  When her sister goes on a two week vacation, Carole’s fragile condition deteriorates, and we travel inside of her head and witness her terrifying paranoid delusions firsthand.

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Roman Polanski’s first English language movie, after achieving critical success with the Polish language thriller Nóż w wodzie [Knife in the Water] (1962).  The relatively recent success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) undoubtedly helped the film’s marketability, as it could be billed as a female variation on the same theme.  But despite dealing with insanity and murder, Polanski’s film turned out nothing like Hitchcock’s classic; whereas Psycho was clearly entertainment first, with horrors meant to thrill like a roller-coaster, Repulsion was relentlessly tense, downbeat and disturbing, strictly arthouse fare.
  • Ethereal Star Catherine Denueve (who had been the lover of, and given her first break in films by, roguish director Roger Vadim) was coming off her first major success in the lighthearted 1964 musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg].  Playing a dangerous, asexual, schizophrenic woman in a role that called for little dialogue immediately after her role as the romantic lead in a musical demonstrated her tremendous range and helped establish her as one of the greatest actresses of the late 1960s and 70s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many enduring images to choose from, including the hare carcass and simple close-ups of Deneuve’s eyeballs, but the iconic image is Carole walking down a narrow corridor, as gray hands reach out from inside the walls to grope at her virginal white nightgown. (The scene is a sinister variation on a similar image from Jean Cocteau’s surrealist classic Le Belle et La Bette [Beauty and the Beast] (1946)).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Although there are several otherwordly, expressionistic dream sequences in the film, Polanski creates a terribly tense and claustrophobic atmosphere even before the nightmares come with odd camera angles and the strategic use of silence broken by invasive ambient noises. As Carole floats around her empty apartment, silent, alone, and ghostlike, ordinary objects and sounds take on an otherworldly quality. The effect is unlike any other.

Original trailer for Repulsion

COMMENTS:  Polanski begins the film with a close-up of a woman’s eyeball, an opening Continue reading 3. REPULSION (1965)

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