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)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick, , Jennifer Jostyn, , , , Robert Mukes, Dennis Fimple,

PLOT: Four college kids are abducted by a backwoods maniac family.



WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because the Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff plot was too tissue-thin to support a movie, heavy metal musician turned debutante director Rob Zombie’s fleshed the film out with stylistic excess.  Home movies from inside the serial killers’ psyches, purposeless solarizations, classic drive-in intertitles, and clips of vintage B&W cheesecake constantly interrupt what action there is.  The effect is not to make the film weird, but to draw attention to the director– “I’m Rob Zombie, trash horror aficionado, and I’m making a movie!”–and make him seem weird.  It ends on a highly surrealistic note, but this is actually the weakest part of the movie.

COMMENTS:  Make no bones about it: House of 1000 Corpses is bad.  This movie is what happens when you take The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, drain out all the scary, and replace it with annoying.  Still, if Zombie had to fail, at least he failed bombastically rather than meekly.  If you took away the directorial flourishes from the movie and left only the plot, played straight, then this movie really would have been a nightmare (see the weirdly praised sequel The Devil’s Rejects).

The presence of trash film icons Sid Haig (Spider Baby) as the memorable sideshow Captain Spaulding (pictured) and Karen Black as the redneck matriarch adds some interest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As Rob Zombie’s name twitched over the seizure-inducing opening credits sequence of ‘House of 1000 Corpses’, one highly eager dude in the 1/4 filled theatre gamely raised his fists and shouted, ‘Rob Zombie Rules!’ As the closing credits rolled an unbearably slow 88 minutes later, I’ll bet that same guy contemplated raising his fists again and announcing, ‘I apologize for rushing to judgment.'” -Todd Levin, Film Threat

2. SILENT HILL (2006)

“Je me suis drapé dans ma conception du fantastique, et ce n’est pas celle de tout le monde.” – Christophe Gans

DIRECTED BY: Christophe Gans

FEATURING: Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden, Jodelle Ferland

PLOT:  After her adopted daughter’s sleepwalking problem turns hazardous, her concerned mother decides to investigate the name of the town that she mutters in her narcoleptic fits: “Silent Hill.”  The pair travel to the titular locale, a modern ghost town that has been abandoned for decades due to a coal fire that continuously burns underground.  Once inside the city limits, mother and daughter are separated, and the mother’s search for her lost child leads her through increasingly bizarre and portentous adventures in the haunted town.

Still from Silent Hill (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was adapted from the cult/horror Sony Play Station video game, “Silent Hill”.  Movie adaptations of video games were (are) a relatively new phenomenon, and had generally not been well received by either movie critics or fans.  Although these movies debuted with the advantage of a built in fan base, Super Mario Bros. (1993), Wing Commander (1993), and Doom (2005) had all been massive critical and box office flops, and that’s leaving aside the efforts of Uwe Boll.  Although the Lara Croft and Resident Evil franchises became minor hits, by 2006 the entire video game adaption genre had already become a critical punchline, synonymous with diminished expectations.
  • Director Christophe Gans, a French b-movie film-geek turned director, was a fan of the “Silent Hill” game series and convinced that he could fashion the first truly successful game adaptation.  He had previously had a surprise international (and modest stateside) hit with Brotherhood of the Wolf [Le Pacte des loups] (2001), a weird but energetic historical/detective/horror/kung fu hybrid.
  • Screenwriter Roger Avary assisted Quentin Tarantino on the scripts for Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994),  as well as handling both screenwriting and directing duties on his own projects, such as Killing Zoe (1994).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Blankets of ash falling over a deserted town like snow, until the eerie stillness is broken by the shrill wail of a 1950s era air raid siren.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gans paints his murky canvas with the expected

Original trailer for Silent Hill

monstrosities from deep inside the id, but it’s the film’s disjointed storytelling that turns it from a mere visual romp through scary-town into something totally disconcerting and off-kilter.

COMMENTS:  The critics agree: Silent Hill is a fantastic looking picture, but the script is Continue reading 2. SILENT HILL (2006)

1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

AKA A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking
Recommended

DIRECTED BYNicolas Roeg

FEATURINGDonald Sutherland, Julie Christie

PLOT: John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident. Life goes on, however, and they travel to Venice as planned, where John is directing the restoration of a Gothic cathedral. While there, they meet a blind psychic woman who tells them she can see their daughter, and John begins to catch glimpses out of the corner of his eye of a red-hooded figure that looks suspiciously like his drowned daughter.

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BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Nicolas Roeg’s third film, after Performance (1970) and Walkabout (1971). The movie was adapted from a short story by the British novelist Daphne du Maurier, whose works also inspired Rebecca and The Birds.
  • The love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland was so graphic for the time that (unverified) rumors persisted that they had actually had intercourse on the set.  Roeg has since dismissed the rumors.
  • Some of the style of the film may have been influenced by Italian giallos of the period, though this connection has been exaggerated simply because of the Venetian setting.
  • Don’t Look Now is #8 on the British Film Institute’s list of the all-time great British films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE : The color red. (More would constitute a spoiler).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDon’t Look Now is subtly unnerving—perhaps toos ubtly—throughout. But the last 20 minutes are a truly unsettling, nightmarish experience, capped by a shocking, largely unexplained resolution that leaves it to the viewer to solve the film’s mystery. By the end, the city of Venice has turned into a strangely deserted, Gothic labyrinth that may haunt your nightmares.


Trailer for Don’t Look Now narrated by John Landis

COMMENTS: Near the opening of Don’t Look Now is a fast-moving montage in which key Continue reading 1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

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