Tag Archives: 1981

CAPSULE: THE PIT (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Lew Lehman

FEATURING: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias

PLOT: A psychotic, outcast 12-year old boy talks to his teddy bear and feeds his enemies to creatures who live in a pit in the woods.

Still from The Pit (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Pit is a mish-mash of eerie/weird ideas and frustratingly bad directorial decisions; unfortunately, the latter dominate the former.

COMMENTS: It’s called The Pit, but most viewers would call it “the pits.” If you’re a regular at this website, however, you’re probably not one of them. After all, any movie that has both a creepy kid who talks to his teddy bear (that talks back) and a pit full of flesh-eating monsters (which the psycho-moppet calls “trollogs,” a bastardization of “troglodytes”) has something going for it. That said, The Pit is a big mess, sporadically interesting, but mostly a big tease of the weird movie it could have been in more competent hands. It’s torn between its high-concept psychodrama and its longing to be a drive-in creature feature. It rushes around trying to be all things to all people: it starts out confusingly with an out-of-context killing, inserts gratuitous nude scenes that are often ridiculous (besides peeping on his babysitter, Jamie uses a bizarre and improbable scheme to get a local mom to strip), shoehorns in barnyard comedy, sends out a bunch of guys in furry monster suits to run around in the woods chased by a posse of shotgun-wielding yokels, and epilogues with a nonsensical “twist.” It’s reasonably inept B-movie fun, but it’s not as deranged as it needs to be to earn classic bad movie status. Instead, it’s almost endearingly clumsy, like a lesser effort.

We get that Jamie is ostracized for being a weird kid, but the script goes way too far out of its way to hammer that point home. It’s one thing when his fellow snot-nosed tykes make fun of him, but having little old ladies in wheelchairs loudly insult him when he’s standing in earshot (“just not right, that boy!”) is laying it on too thick. Still, with his bowl haircut cut and a nose that’s growing just slightly faster than the rest of his face, Sammy Snyders is effectively creepy, without being an exceptionally good actor (taking into account his age and the extraordinary demands of the role). He’s in that awkward stage of early adolescence: you can still see fading traces of the cute kid he once was, but he hasn’t yet developed into a young man. He has good facial expressions; his eyes simmer and his lips tremble when he gets frustrated, which happens often. His line readings are a different matter, although it is a challenge for a 12-year old kid to convincingly deliver monologues like “she’s not like the others, Teddy, she’s pretty” to his teddy bear. The awkwardness arguably works in his favor; this is a bad B-movie version of a schizo kid, so a performance that’s a little unconvincing adds an unnerving edge: more evidence that this boy’s “just not right.” And if you’ve got a phobia about creepy, psychotic kids, this one could haunt your nightmares.

This is director Lew Lehman’s only feature. Screenwriter Ian A. Stuart complained that he made a hash out of the story, which was written as a serious thriller about a disturbed kid (everything was supposed to be all in Jamie’s head).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… there’s no argument that I can perceive that makes The Pit a legitimately effective motion picture. Its deranged tone, bizarre characters, and a loopy structure that makes the 97-minute running time seem every bit of 20 minutes longer than the filmmakers were ready for all contribute to make certain of that.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Patrick,” who called it “[a]n utterly bizarre 80s horror film .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SUDDENLY IN THE DARK (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Young Nam Ko

FEATURING: Kim Young-ae, Lee Ki-seon, Yoon Il-bong

PLOT: A Korean housewife believes that their new maid is having an affair with her husband; is it all in her imagination, or does it have something to do with the mysterious shaman’s doll the strange girl carries around everywhere?

Still from Suddenly in the Dark (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A rare Eighties horror from South Korea, recently “rediscovered” and released on Blu-ray by Mondo Macabro, Suddenly is not quite a lost classic (and not especially weird by our standards), but it is a solid psychological horror/drama with a unique focus on female sexual insecurity.

COMMENTS: Suddenly in the Dark is unusual not merely because it’s female-centered, but because it revolves around a very particular female anxiety—the fear that a wife’s slowly fading beauty will lead her husband to abandon her for a younger mate. The specialization of this obsession is a fertile soil for the movie to explore a broader and more universal theme of paranoia, with lots of different textures. Seon-hee’s fears may be totally unfounded, or they may be only partly true; she might be losing her mind due to out-of-control suspicions arising from  neglect by her workaholic husband, or she might be the victim of a supernatural conspiracy to take her spouse from her and destroy the family structure. The audience is kept off balance about whom they should fear: Seon-hee, the paranoid wife, or Mi-ok, the seemingly innocent young maid who carries a bundled-up shaman’s doll everywhere. There are enough hints of supernatural agency—such as the appearance of a slide depicting the frowning doll in the lepidopterist’s presentation before the totem actually appears in the story—to make the audience wonder if the source of the disorder is witchcraft, insanity, or gaslighting.

Mi-ok’s coquettish expressions are good, finding the right guise of uncertainty midway between genuine simplicity and a cunning mask. The younger girl is frequently shown standing above the wife in the frame, on the balcony looking down on her older counterpart, to emphasize her recent ascendancy in the household. Her body is exploited—she has frequent nude scenes and upskirt shots—but the twist is that she’s the object of the female gaze, not the male. The husband barely gives the girl a second glance; it’s the wife’s eyes that linger on her exposed flesh, burning not with lust but with envy.

If you favor the use of a fractured camera to depict the disintegration of the female mind, you’re in luck: it seems like about ten percent of the film is shot through a kaleidoscope. Once, a kaleidoscopic dream is superimposed on a image of Seon-hee fitfully sleeping, a great effect. Other shots are distorted by the simple but effective trick of affixing a thick water glass to the lens, sometimes adding a green and/or red filter to the mix. The result is a disorienting visual mix where significant objects—the doll—appear rotating inside a shard swirling in a morass of psychedelic colors. Mixed with the female paranoia, the colorfully cockeyed visuals give the film a distinct giallo feel, with a Korean flair (a character descended from the “Sea God’s grandmother” is a distinctly non-European element). The ending is too literal for my tastes, but features plenty of cathartic destruction. Suddenly in the Dark never made its way past Korea ‘s borders in its initial run, but it makes us wonder what other minor treasures may be hiding in the vaults of cinema’s outer rim.

An interview with the producer in the extras reveals that a remake is planned. The film itself is heavily influenced by the 1960 Korean drama/thriller The Housemaid, in which a seductive maid disrupts the balance of a happy family.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wow, this one is wild! A colorful, psychedelic supernatural shocker from Korea, this stylish offering is a hugely enjoyable mind twister that assaults the viewer with a seemingly endless variety of creative visuals that turn its seemingly routine story into something totally fresh and unpredictable.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)

252. POSSESSION (1981)

AKA The Night the Screaming Stops

Recommended

“…Viktor Shklovsky wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too… In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else.”–Daniel Bird

“Nothing wants to bite anymore – they want to lick.”– Andrzej Zulawski, from the Possession commentary track.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Heinz Bennent, Margit Carstensen, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: Mark, an agent for some unspecified agency, returns home to his wife, Anna, and son in Berlin only to find that Anna has taken a lover. She splits her time between her home and her lover; however, Mark still wants her, causing extensive conflict between them. He uncovers a previous affair with a man named Heinrich, but she also left him for another—and finding the identity of her current lover leads to mayhem and a rising body count.

Still from Possession (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Andrzej Zulawski conceived Possession in the wake of several events—the collapse of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek after being allowed to return to Poland from exile after the international success of 1975’s The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and the subsequent production and shutdown of On The Silver Globe and his second exile from Poland.
  • Zulawski originally pitched the film to Paramount Studio head Charlie Bluhdorn, calling it “a movie about a woman who f**ks an octopus.” They passed.
  • The film played at Cannes and Isabelle Adjani won “Best Actress,” sharing the award for her roles in both Possession and Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet.
  • The final film was chopped up by distributors. The U.S. release was notorious for being a total misrepresentation of the movie: the distributor removed about 40 minutes, reshuffled scenes, and added optical effects to play up and sell it as a horror movie. The Australian version made similar cuts. It wasn’t until 2000 that the original version was available to be seen in the U.S.
  • Possession was briefly released in the UK, but on videotape it was later banned as a “video nasty,” a classification intended for extreme horror films with no artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film with many memorable images, mainly close-ups of the characters in various stages of mania, the one that sticks is of Adjani’s Anna being serviced by something coiled around her… and writhing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink socks; subway miscarriage; Anna’s lover

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It starts out as a domestic drama turned up to 11, which then goes up to 15. The intensity is compelling, especially when most other relationship films at the time went for quiet decorum. Possession throws all that right out the window. And then at the midway point, it drops the bottom out of expectations with the introduction of the Creature.


Possession international release trailer

COMMENTS: There seems to be no major disagreement about Possession joining a list of “weird” anything. The fur begins to fly in the Continue reading 252. POSSESSION (1981)

CAPSULE: THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE (1981)

Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes; Doctor Jekyll and His Women; The Bloodbath of Doctor Jekyll

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marina Pierro, , Gérard Zalcberg

PLOT: Dr. Jekyll throws an engagement party in his mansion, and the guests soon find themselves dying to leave.

Still from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborne (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has its deliciously decadent moments and is probably the strangest version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, it’s more of a second tier weird movie. It is recommended only for fans of Eurotrashy artsploitation features.

COMMENTS: Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborne starts off slowly, with seemingly endless dinner conversation and a long (if fetishistic) dance by a teenage ballerina, so that you may feel you’ve been cheated and that maybe this isn’t the perverted Freudian freakshow the ad copy promised. Flash-forwards to snippets from the coming night’s brutal debaucheries keep hope alive. Fortunately, about a third of the way through Patrick Magee starts blindly firing his pistol, virgins are despoiled, a father is tied up while Hyde (and his oversize prosthetic member) violates his daughter before his very eyes, and Jekyll is writhing in a bathtub full of filthy, rusty water (no director outside the porn world requires as much writing of his actors as does Borowczyk). Soon enough, Jekyll’s maiden fiancee, Miss Osborne, catches onto the fact that her hubby is able to transform into the well-hung Hyde several times a night, and finds herself intrigued by the idea.

Jekyll/Osborne continues Borowczyk’s obsession with the notion that human beings are just a few flimsy bourgeois notions away from bloody rutting animals, although this movie does not exploit that idea as explicitly and audaciously as in his Certified Weird atrocity, The Beast. Despite the explicit nature of the film, the relocation of the action to a single night in a single house, and the crucial infusion of female sexual energy in the person of Jekyll’s fiancee, this adaptation does legitimately capture the sense of Victorian rot and the dualist tensions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story, while at the same time being a revolutionary erotic expansion of it. Fanny Osborne was the name of Stevenson’s real-life fiancee (and later wife), who, according to Stevenson, encouraged the author to burn the first draft of “Dr. Jekyll” for being too sensationalist and not allegorical enough. Borowczyk originally marketed the film as being an adaptation of that lost first draft which he claimed to have uncovered, but later admitted the story was made up.

With this film Udo Kier became, to my knowledge, the only actor to portray Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll.

In 2015 Arrow Video released a shockingly lavish DVD/Blu-ray combination version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborne. This virtually unknown movie gets its own Criterion-style booklet of essays and a host of extras. The DVD architecture even resembles a Criterion edition, right down to the style of the short prose introductions before the special features. The most substantial extra features are Borowczyk’s slyly naughty 1979 short “Happy Toy” and the experimental tribute film “Himorogi.”There is also a commentary track fashioned from interview segments with various people who worked on the film, as well as over an hours worth of interviews and analysis with stars Kier and Pierro and others. Fans of the director will consider this a must-buy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“….a film of strange and outrageous beauty that seems to emanate from that place where our fears are also desires.”–Chris Preachment, Time Out (contemporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: AMERICAN POP (1981)

Reader recommendation by “Jackie”

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Ron Thompson, Lisa Jane Perksy, Jeffery Lippa

PLOT: Centering on a family of musicians from the 1910s to the 1980s, American Pop takes a psychedelic look at the history and evolution of American music whilst telling a story of its own.

Still from American Pop (1981)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: American Pop contains many vivid and flashy surreal images. It’s like a trip through psychedelia that encompasses it’s plot and structure beyond measure.

COMMENTS: This film is important not only for its creativity, but it also has a unique take on American culture. Bakshi’s talent is at its peak with this film. His style is fluid and the film’s visuals are stunning.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bakshi… continues to push animation techniques to the outer limits more frequently explored by film makers who call themselves avant-garde, but who seldom are. His newest film, ‘American Pop,’ is a dazzling display of talent, nerve, ideas (old and new), passion and a marvelously free sensibility.“–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981)

When watching ‘s Road Warrior (1981), one can glean, in hindsight, the extreme right-wing mythologizing seed of its lead actor (). Essentially, Max is an apocalyptic Christ of the desert highway. Like most prophetic characters, he is cartoonish and bland. His sought-after Ark Of The Covenant is petrol, and accompanying him is a canine apostle (what better follower can one have than man’s best friend?)

Miller, fresh off the low budget prequel Mad Max (1979), crafts Road Warrior as a film of infinite stamina; a kind of Jack Chick post-holocaust tribulation on wheels.  He went on to direct a second sequel in 1985, Beyond Thunderdome, which was not quite the cult hit Road Warrior was, despite some critics’ declaring the third entry as the best of the lot. Not having seen it, I am not at liberty to comment, but I suspect Miller’s best works to date are his segment of the Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), which was unquestionably the highlight in that woefully uneven production, along with Babe: Pig In The City (1998).

One of the surprisingly refreshing elements of Road Warrior is a  romance that never materializes (but then, Mel’s macho Christ-like character does have to remain celibate). Of course, Max is just too preoccupied for love, speeding down his existential, two-lane blacktop highway. Temptation of the flesh is hardly his only potential distraction. Rabid, gnostic-styled motorcyclists add to the adolescent S & M milieu.

Miller compared Road Warrior to ‘s The General (1926). That comparison might very well be apt, but despite revisionist assessments, that earlier film, as beautiful and classic as it is, does not have the sustained brilliance of Keaton’s best work. Like The General, at 95 minutes, Road Warrior simply goes on too long.

Still from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)Road Warrior is chock-full of dazzling imagery and the thrills leave you in a state of dismal breathlessness, but after the credits roll, the bleak sentimentality begins to seep in and the film evaporates rather quickly.

Miller succeeds most when dousing Road Warrior in B-movie sauce. If Miller had maintained the pulpy Death Race 2000 flavor, the movie might have been more memorable (and certainly would have been more enjoyable). Unfortunately, the director stretches himself too thin when he missteps by channeling all that symbolic folklore. Like George Stevens’ Shane, Miller is simply too self-conscious in his puffed-up myth making. Max, like Shane and Jesus Christ, takes on antagonists that outsize and outnumber him. It did not work Shane (1953). Nor does it work here.

CAPSULE: THE BEYOND (1981)

AKA Seven Doors of Death

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (as Katherine MacColl), David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale

PLOT: A young woman inherits a hotel that was built over one of the seven gates of Hell.

Still from The Beyond (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it would be hard to deny the irrational aesthetics of The Beyond—this is, in every sense, a weird movie—its filmmaking quality leaves much to be desired. I find The Beyond falls just below the threshold of list candidacy.

COMMENTS: Convoluted and absurd, both by design and by accident, The Beyond is a mess of a horror spectacle, and its effect on a particular viewer can be difficult to predict. You might find it unsettling, or annoying, or sometimes both, in back-to-back scenes. The story lurches from plot point to plot point, racing towards the next shock sequence; long series of frames seem to be snipped out of the film. It begins with a sepia-tinted flashback: in 1927 Louisiana, a mob of torch-bearing villagers track down a “warlock” at a hotel and take him to the basement, where they beat him with chains, crucify him against the wall (is that really the symbolism director Fulci wanted?), and douse him with acid. The gore scenes are accompanied by horrifically inappropriate funk music that sounds like horror-rock band Goblin got infected by boogie fever. Years later, Joe the plumber goes down to the same basement, and unseen forces squeeze his eyeball out of its socket, one of several scenes of ocular trauma (a Fulci specialty). Once his corpse is discovered and taken in for an autopsy, the pathologist decides to hook a brainwave monitor up to the lifeless body, for the hell of it (“why not?”). Lo and behold, his brain has a heartbeat! Later, the insect world’s loudest tarantulas—they chirp like birds—eat a man’s face off. And in the weird and sporadically effective finale, a hospital is inexplicably taken over by zombies, and our fleeing heroes escape via an elevator that leads to the hotel basement!

Like I said, it’s a mess. The Beyond is one of the most divisive movies we consider for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, with critics and horror fans dividing up to defend or attack it in equal measures, and with equal passion. It’s a movie which alternates effectively evocative scenes (a blind girl standing on an empty bayou causeway as a lone car bears down on her) with absolute howlers (the hand-painted “do not entry” sign at the hospital). There is something attractive about the mix of sloppiness and surrealism here, but I think the enjoyment of this film relies on appreciation of a very specific type of incoherence camp that not everyone can vibe to. While I catch a glimpse of what this movie’s champions—many of whom are extremely erudite and eloquent in its defense—see in The Beyond, for me, Fulci’s incompetence and adolescent gore obsessions drown out his flashes of irrational inspiration and visual imagination. This is Lucio Fulci at his very best, but Fulci at his best is about the equivalent of at his worst.

Befitting The Beyond‘s cult status, Grindhouse Releasing’s impressive 2015 Blu-ray Collector’s Edition contains 3 discs: the film, an entire disc of extras, and a CD of the soundtrack.

“…Lucio Fulci’s bold incoherence honors [cinema] as a sensory experience…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

(This movie was nominated for review by Alex. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Andre Gregory

PLOT: Struggling playwright Wallace Shawn has dinner with his old friend, theater director Andre Gregory, who describes the mystical experiences he’s had visiting experimental theater workshops and communes around the world.

Still from My Dinner with Andre (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. The concept of a movie that is almost entirely a single dinner conversation is successfully experimental, and some of Gregory’s theories approach the bizarre, but Louis Malle has a couple of better candidates for the List of the weirdest movies of all time out there.

COMMENTS: Based on the description—there’s no plot per se, just two intellectuals sitting down for dinner at a swank restaurant having a conversation–you probably have no interest in seeing My Dinner with Andre, no matter how many times cinephiles tell you it’s a classic. I admit, the synopsis held no great attraction for me; I like Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle, but I never would have sought this movie out on my own, and I approached the prospect of viewing it more with trepidation than anticipation. Frankly, I was hoping it would not be as boring as it sounds—I mean, I like a good chat about life when I’m a participant, but I don’t see talking as a spectator sport. I needn’t have worried; although My Dinner with Andre assumes that you are reasonably intelligent and have a basic liberal education, it’s more accessible than it sounds. And, if you engage with it, it’s also more dramatic than it sounds.

The movie stars playwright/actor Wallace Shawn as a struggling playwright/actor, and avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory as an avant-garde theater director. The conversation is scripted, but it is based on actual discussions between the two men, who play exaggerated, fictionalized versions of themselves. The story begins with a dissatisfied Shawn complaining about his life: his career as a playwright isn’t putting food on the table and all he ever thinks about are his money problems. He is going to dinner with Andre, the theater director who produced his first play but who had recently dropped out of the New York theater scene to travel around the world, returning with strange tales of his adventures. Wally has heard Andre has been acting erratic and is nervous to meet him again. The first part of the dinner is almost a monologue by Gregory, who details his adventures in an experimental theater group in Poland where he directed a group of women who did not speak English; tells tales about his time in the Sahara with a Japanese monk who could balance on his fingertips; and relates a story about a ceremony where he was ritually killed and resurrected. Andre explains that he has been searching for experiences that allow him to be truly human, because he believes that modern man is fatally disconnected from reality. He also explains that, during this period in his life, he would spontaneously hallucinate, seeing birds flying out of his mouth when he looked in the rear-view mirror and a blue minotaur with flowers growing out of its body at midnight Mass. Although Andre is charasmatic, enthusiastic and lucid, these confessions cast him in a strange light. Is he really a mystic? Or does he have a touch of madness? Or is he just a man with an amazing imagination?

Wally listens with increasing interest as Andre relates his exploits, until, in the second half of the conversation, he starts to raise objections and fire back at Andre, whose vision of life he finds intoxicating but impractical. Wally says Andre’s lifestyle is too elitist: not everyone can have these experiences, and there is meaning to be found in reading good books and enjoying a cup of coffee. Neither Wally nor Andre gets the upper hand. Ultimately, Andre doesn’t convince Wally that it’s necessary to take extreme measures to find meaning in life. Yet, Wally still has a sense of epiphany. As he’s leaving dinner, he thinks with wonder of ordinary experiences he’s had: buying a suit, eating an ice cream… Wally comes away from dinner invigorated, not because Andre convinces him to change his life and start “really living,” but because he’s refreshed himself by an encounter with another mind, with another way of thinking about life. The reason My Dinner with Andre works is not because we take sides with either Wally or Andre, but because it reminds us of discussions we’ve had with our own dear friends, where we lose track of time and talk deep into the night. It recalls those treasured times we shared our deepest thoughts, and someone else thought enough of them to challenge us. It’s the conversation that matters, not the words spoken.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the few entrancingly esoteric, radically raw dialectics ever filmed.”–Joseph Jon Lanthier, Slant (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who simply called it “an amazing film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: NIGHTDREAMS (1981)

DIRECTED BY: F.X. Pope

FEATURING: Dorothy LeMay, Jennifer West, Andy Nichols

PLOT: Two scientists observe a woman’s erotic dreams.

Still from Nightdreams (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As the first, and very nearly the only, movie to mix hardcore XXX action with dream logic, Nightdreams is a unique beast. As a curiosity piece it’s something to add to your bucket list, but once the novelty of surrealist porn wears off, Nightdreams is not really a great movie—and it’s worse erotica.

COMMENTS: There’s a reason plotted porn movies never took off. Narrative and intense titillation work against each other; each one is a distraction from the other. Even today, directors like who toy with adding explicit sex to their movies make sure that actual acts of penetration and gynecological detail last only for a few seconds, to keep their stories from drifting into a fap-fest. Surrealism and porn don’t really go well together, either; the weird feeling inspired when a cigarette-smoking fish head pops up in bed next to a lovely lady throws cold water on those sexytime cravings. Written by a young “Hustler” copy writer named Jerry Stahl and that magazine’s “Creative Director” (the two would continue their partnership on the XXX cult film Cafe Flesh and the softcore midnight movie Dr. Caligari), Nightdreams was made by smart people slumming in the gutter, anxious to do something erotically different a) to get themselves noticed and b) to keep from getting bored in the repetitive and formulaic world of porno. Of course, porn is repetitive and formulaic for a reason—its function is to expand viewers’ pants, not their intellectual horizons—so, while Nightdreams got some favorable notice in the scuzz press as some sort of prestige sleaze piece, it didn’t exactly found a subgenre of arthouse smut.

Nightdreams stars Dorothy LeMay as the woman whose sexual imagination is so outlandish it’s the subject of a research project by a pair of scientists in lab coats. Strawberry blond LeMay has a real-world, girl-next-door sexiness that’s refreshing compared to the plasticized glamor of today’s porn starlets, but, based on her line readings, an actress she is not. That’s okay, because she appears to enjoy the weird sex (so maybe she is a great actress, after all). Her fantasies involve sex with a Jack-in-the-box (accompanied by creepy anti-erotic laughter), a campfire threesome with two lithe cowgirls (while Wall of Voodoo sings a cool New Wave rendition of “Ring of Fire”), servicing a couple of hookah-smoking sheiks, meeting a man with a fetus in his pants, a pseudo-rape scene over a toilet, and rutting with the Devil in Hell, followed by a romantic coupling with an angelic stud in Paradise. The movie’s most memorable sequence, no doubt, is when Dorothy fellates a living rendition of a Cream of Wheat box while serenaded by a jazz version of “Old Man River.” Her head bobs back and forth to the music, and a piece of toast shows up to accompany the couple on sax. It’s an unusual sight, to say the least. Like most of Nightdreams‘ scenes, it’s too weird to be erotic, but too insistently porn-y to work as an art installation.

The Cream of Wheat scene is a trademark infringement that the Nabisco company would never condone, and I seriously doubt Johnny Cash would license the rights to “Ring of Fire” for a lesbian threesome scene, either. I suspect Nightdreams got away with these infringements because, in 1981, porn was still relatively taboo, and none of the copyright holders would admit to having seen the film.

The IMDB credits “F.X. Pope”  as Nightdreams‘ director, and lists this as an alias for TV and music video director Francis Delia (who has no other porn connections). However, IMDB also lists “F.X. Pope” as one of Sayadian’s pseudonyms—I had always assumed Sayadian was the director because of the style, and also because he indisputably directed the sequel Nightdreams 2.

Others who worked on Nightdreams include Fast Steppin’ Freddie, Zoot Suit and Pez D. Spencer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…definitely the most unusual and unique porn flick I’ve ever seen… a series of weird, funny, sexy, surreal and twisted dreams.”–Goregirl, Goregirl’s Dungeon (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Andrew.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)