Tag Archives: 1988

LIST CANDIDATE: PAPERHOUSE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Bernard Rose

FEATURING: Charlotte Burke, Elliott Spiers, Glenne Headley, Ben Cross

PLOT: Bedridden from an illness, young Anna experiences recurring dreams of a house in a field—a house, she soon realizes, that changes corresponding to the drawings she makes.

Still from Paperhouse (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Applying an overlay of stark realism to the classic Wonderlandian formula of a child immersed in their own imagination, Paperhouse brings the essence of ’s classic tale of weirdness into the world of the lower-class, late-20th-century childhood, and makes it all the weirder for its dreariness.

COMMENTS: Four years before rising to international attention (and then abruptly falling out of it again) with the horror classic Candyman, director Bernard Rose would helm this loose adaptation of Catherine Storr’s children’s novel Marianne Dreams. Despite the high praise it received from Roger Ebert, the film flew largely under the international radar, and has yet to receive a DVD release outside Europe.

Drawing, like so many “weird” films before and after it, on a certain Alice in Wonderlandian spirit, the movie builds upon the versatile foundation of a child’s imagination, supplanting Carroll’s prim and privileged young Victorian with a rebellious young lower-classer whose world is London flats, government schools, and dysfunctional families. For all her premature cynicism, she yet clings to her childhood beliefs in fantasy, fairy tales, and happy endings.

As any child, and many adults, would naturally do, Anna attempts to escape her worldly concerns—which include an alcoholic father and a bout of fever—by retreating into her fantasies. But these dreams, we soon realize, are as tainted as the rest of her childhood, a fact communicated by the film’s distinctive set design. The titular paperhouse truly looks—in the most clinical sense—like what a child’s drawing of a house might look like if brought to life. It isn’t a pretty sight. Malformed and misshapen, Anna’s dream house is a hollow shell, empty of color, décor, architectural nuances, all those dull details a child would generally not concern herself with. As the woes of daily life continue to plague her, Anna’s attempts to draw some child-friendly charm into her paperhouse only transform it from dreary to sinister. An ice cream dispenser becomes a roaring, metallic industrial beast; an oversized Coke bottle seems sarcastically Warholian; and her attempts to draw her estranged father into the picture spawn a blind, raging monster.

From a filmmaking perspective, Paperhouse, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its limited budget, offers little to criticize. Rose’s direction is confident and purposeful; the set design is realized in a manner that wonderfully conveys the film’s central themes; Glenne Headley manages a convincing London accent; and Charlotte Burke and Elliott Spiers, despite their young ages, carry their leading roles with competence (though both of them, thankfully, had the good sense to get out of the film business before the ugly industry of child acting could consume them).

But perhaps the core of what makes Paperhouse so recommendable, and so weird, lies not in its technical execution, nor in its fantastical elements, but in its abnormal honesty. Looking past the “Alice” influences, we might see it as a more grounded prototype of such later films as Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls. Although she appreciates the draw of imagination and the appeal of escape into fantasy as much as the next child protagonist, Anna’s mind is far too preoccupied with, and jaded by, her worldly experiences to have time to conjure up elaborate, intricately detailed backdrops encrusted with CGI and Hollywood budgets. In this sense, the film might seem abnormally dreary for its subject matter; yet for that very reason it will also be, for many, far more relatable than similar works.

One can pick holes in anything, and there’s plenty that might be said about the notion that the romance between the two leads seems to happen for little reason other than that they’re a boy and a girl, or that the idealistic ending might jar with the rest of the movie’s more grounded tone. But as with the beloved tale of Alice, the plot is a secondary consideration to exploring the expanses (or in this case, the limitations) of a child’s imagination. Besides, one of the many things that Paperhouse does well is setting up a protagonist who deserves, at the very least, a happy ending.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… has the stark landscapes and the obsessively circling story lines of a dream – which is, of course, what it is….  wisely never attempts to provide a rational explanation for its story…”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill

PLOT: Three women bearing the same name resolve their issues with their spouses by drowning them, enlisting the local coroner to aid in covering up their murderous spree. All the while, the film itself counts inexorably from 1 to 100, which marks the movie’s end.

Still from Drowning by Numbers (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When you put Peter Greenaway behind the camera, there’s going to be some weirdness as a matter of course. But while the movie has striking tableaus composed with his painterly eye, most of the oddity comes from the numerical gambit, with a touch of cavalier attitude toward the macabre.

COMMENTS: There’s no rule that says cinematic murder must be violent, or even serious. Consider the corpse lying in the bucolic countryside of The Trouble with Harry or the repeated deaths of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. So Drowning by Numbers is following in a grand comedic tradition, right down to the titular crime occurring, like the best of jokes, in threes. However, if the murders themselves are relatively light on shock value, they are also surprisingly light on motive. The first husband is ostensibly murdered for unfaithfulness, although there’s little anger in the crime. The second is dispatched merely for being grossly inattentive. By the time we get to the third, there seems to be no real reason for it at all, other than the fact that, hey, we’ve got another husband to kill. The plot is as inured to the horrors of homicide as its murderers.

Drowning by Numbers is that rare film where it’s a tossup as to whether the tone is misogynist or misandrist. True, the men are largely unsympathetic, and that extends to coroner Madgett, who ultimately proves too aggressive in pursuit of romantic recompense for his role as accomplice. But it’s not as though women come off especially well, either. Even with three female leads, the movie doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, since their conversations are largely about the men they love/kill. The three Cissies (who might be three generations, and who, curiously, share a name with a B-movie actress) are shockingly cold; they are not righteous, defensive, or even defiant about their acts. Murder seems to be a decision on par with re-arranging the furniture. Maybe this detachment is not entirely their fault, though, as the entire community seems to be largely apathetic about a sudden spike in the mortality rate. In addition to all this drowning, the film features a self-mutilation that is repeatedly dismissed as trifling, an irresponsible vehicular manslaughter that seemingly affects only one character, and a suicide that goes almost completely unobserved. Perhaps the film’s tone is really just nihilist.

Why so carefree about human life? Probably because of all the games. Characters are constantly playing complex games for which Madgett’s son/apprentice (blood relationships are poorly defined in this movie) must describe their arcane rules. They’re something to do in between all the murders. So it stands to reason that Greenaway himself needs a game to distract himself (and us) from the proceedings…which brings us to the numbers. An alternative way to watch the movie is to spend your time looking for the numbers as they advance, like a kind of scavenger hunt. Sometimes they are subtle, hidden on a far wall or tossed off in dialogue; other times they are absurdly obvious, like on a sign awkwardly nailed to a tree or, most amusingly, as identification for a pair of foot racers who stumble upon one of the drownings and proceed to stalk the merry murderesses for the remainder of the film, still attired in their running gear. But the numbers don’t really tie in to the story in any way, aside from a prologue that promises an ending at 100. It’s just a gimmick. A bold one editorially, showing how meticulously Greenaway has laid out his shooting story, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s essential in the same way a book is on a sea cruise: just another way to pass the time.

Drowning by Numbers is a movie about games, motivated by games, and comprised of games. So your tolerance for the film probably depends on how eager you are to play.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You either love [Greenaway]… or you hate him. In either case, you do not understand him. The characters in ‘Drowning by Numbers’ are all completely credible people, who speak in ordinary English and inhabit a real landscape (except for the numbers), and behave in ways that would not shock the reader of a mystery novel. It is just the arbitrary pattern that seems strange, as one husband after another goes to his watery doom.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

Na Srebrnym Globie

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jerzy Trela, Andrzej Seweryn, Iwona Bielska, Grazyna Dylaq, Jerzy Gralek, Krystyna Janda, Elizabeth Karkoszka, Maciej Goraj, Leszek Dlugosz, Jan Frycz

PLOT: An expedition crash lands on a planet, and the surviving astronauts establish a tribe and a religion explaining their origins. After a recording of the crash is found, another astronaut, Marek, is sent to investigate and is received as a messiah whose arrival has been prophesied. He becomes involved in a struggle against the planet’s original inhabitants, a birdlike race called the Sherms.

Still from On the Silver Globe

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of the few science-fiction adaptations that can earn the adjective of “epic,” and not only in terms of not dumbing down its ideas in favor of effects. The Polish government attempted to kill it, and end its director’s career. Despite it being only 80% of a finished film, there are images that will remain in the mind long after.

COMMENTS: In the best of all possible worlds, On the Silver Globe would be more widely known for the epic saga it is intended to be rather than as an unfinished curiosity, and it would’ve been the blueprint for science-fiction cinema to follow, rather than George Lucas’ Star Wars. Or possibly not. After all, its source material, “The Lunar Trilogy” written by Jerzy Zulawski (Andrzej’s great-uncle), which Stanislaw Lem acknowledged as an influence on his own writing, STILL has never gotten an English translation, making it unknown in the U.S. and other English speaking countries. This is one of the few films where its backstory is as fascinating as the actual film.

To wit: after the success of The Most Important Thing Is to Love, the exiled Zulawski was allowed to return to Poland to work. It was at this time that his marriage collapsed and his wife left (we’ll get to that later on…), and he chose to adapt his great uncle’s trilogy. Two years of work went into the enterprise, with most of the shooting done in 1976 and 1977, until the Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, saw some of the footage and in June 1977, ordered the production to shut down. Props, scenery and costumes were warehoused and/or destroyed; Zulawski was once again persona non grata in Poland, couldn’t get any work, and was again forced to leave home. (Out of this experience came the cult favorite Possession). Wilhelmi died in a plane crash the following year (1978), but despite several attempts to resurrect the project, authorities refused to release the existing material; some of the crew members managed to save what they could, but to no avail. By 1986, the regime in Poland had collapsed, but it was too late—too much material had been lost, several actors had died, and cinematic sci-fi was by then firmly caught in the throes of Star Wars‘s aftermath. However, what was left of the film could indeed be presented in some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

“Vampire’s Kiss, in which Cage plays a literary agent labouring under the delusion he is a vampire, is a weird film that is kind of great in its weirdness and in which Cage exposes himself fearlessly to ridicule, not least for appearing in a horror movie in the first place.”–from a 2013 Guardian profile on Nicolas Cage

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: Peter Loew is a well-to-do young literary agent with a hedonistic lifestyle, who is also in therapy. One night, he is interrupted while romping with his latest sexual conquest when a bat flies into the bedroom; later, he takes home a one night stand who (maybe) bites him on the neck in the throes of passion. He begins to believe he is becoming a vampire, while at the office he grows increasingly annoyed with and abusive to a junior secretary, Alva, to whom he assigns the task of combing through the agency’s archives looking for a missing contract.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was screenwriter Joseph Minion’s second produced script—the first was After Hours (1985).
  • Cage had originally committed to the part before the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987) ignited his career. He tried to back out of Vampire’s Kiss, and Judd Nelson was tapped to play Peter Loew; thankfully, Cage changed his mind and decided to honor his commitment.
  • According to the commentary, a late scene where Peter is walks down a Manhattan street talking to himself with blood on his shirt, and none of the passersby appear to take any notice of him, was filmed with real New Yorkers who had no idea they were on a movie shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select the vision of Cage’s manic face as he mocks poor Alva (an image Dread Central’s Anthony Arrigo brilliantly summarized as “the infamous shot of Cage’s eyebrows attempting to flee the insanity that is his face“), a sight so powerful that it birthed an Internet meme. The notoriety of that shot aside, there are probably a dozen Cage expressions or poses that could vie for the honor of most unforgettable image in Vampire’s Kiss. We ultimately went with the view of Cage’s defeated face as he lies under his couch-cum-coffin, with Jennifer Beals’s hallucinated legs perched above him—an image also used for the film’s original theatrical poster.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Alphabet-mastering Cage, cockroach-eating Cage, plastic-fang Cage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cage, entirely Cage. This is Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and it’s this performance as a literary agent who thinks he’s turning into a bloodsucker that’s his strangest. Without Cage jumping onto desks, eating cockroaches, and posing like Mick Jagger after demonstrating his mastery of the alphabet, this would merely be an oddball tale; with him in the role, it’s a totally bizarre one.


Original trailer for Vampire’s Kiss

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just Continue reading 243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

GUY MADDIN’S TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL (1988)

Guy Maddin’s first feature film, Tales From The Gimli Hospital (1988), had nearly as much impact for him as Eraserhead (1977) had for . Of course, Maddin is often compared to Lynch, which is as ridiculous as comparing Paul Klee to Max Ernst, ultimately failing to give due credit to either artist.  Make no mistake, Maddin and Lynch are indeed two of the most potent artists in the medium of film from the last fifty years. Late in life Arnold Schoenberg, the boogeyman of the first half of twentieth century music, was asked by an interviewer, “Are you aware that young composers are now utilizing your twelve-tone method?” The reply was pure Schoenberg: “But are they making music with it?” Lynch and Maddin succeed where others fail because they make music.

Maddin and Lynch belong to a small (unlike painting and music, film has never had a large school of revolutionaries) school of innovative avant-garde (or Surrealist, if one prefers sub-labels) filmmakers who are astutely aware of their aesthetic tradition.  No matter how elastic, their films maintain a sense of control, never veering into a slipshod experimentation for the sake of experimentation mode. After Schoenberg died, Pierre Boulez took up that mantle. Now, with Boulez gone, we really have seen the last of the avant-garde titans that remembered to continue “making music with it.” One can only hope that we will not soon be saying the same of Lynch, Maddin, , , or (yes, De Palma), but it is likely that we will. Innovation has been largely silenced in favor of the mainstream’s imitation diet. De Palma and Waters have unofficially retired. Jodorowsky, never a prolific artist, is finishing his first film in three years. Lynch has resurfaced after nearly a ten-year hibernation (although he did produce largely unseen shorts during that period). Alas, this is only to rehash “Twin Peaks” for television. After INLAND EMPIRE, this seems a step backward.

Maddin has been (and remains) the only active filmmaker of the listed lot. It is tempting to say that we cannot, or should not limit ourselves to a single work in Maddin’s oeuvre. Rather, we are rightly invited, or tempted, to absorb his entire body of work. Perhaps the best place to start is in the beginning, with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988).

From the outset, Maddin establishes his obsessions: silent film, radio melodrama,  Mary Pickford’s Sparrows (1926), indigenous documentaries, , the s, and . Maddin also finds a kinship with the earliest, scratchy films of John Waters (i.e. 1969’s Mondo Trasho and 1970’s Multiple Maniacs 1970).

Still from Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)Above all, Tales is lit and narrated like a visualization of an “Inner Sanctum” radio episode. It opens on the coastal village of Gimli, which is faced with a smallpox epidemic. An emergency makeshift hospital, inside of a barn, deals with the crisis. The film primarily focuses on the relationship between Einar the lonely () and Gunnar (Michael Gottli).

A boy and girl, dressed in their Sunday best, are ushered into the hospital to visit their ailing mother. Nurse Amma (Margaret-Anne MacLeod) tells the children to “let your mother listen to her music,” which sounds like 1940s big band playing on a 78 record with a stuck needle. The nurse distracts the children with a tale of “Einar the lonely and Snjofridur, a beautiful young girl who was dying. It all happened in a Gimli we no longer know.”

Oddly, it is awhile before we are introduced to either Einar or Snjofridur (Angela Heck). Rather we are treated to homoerotic images of shirtless men shaving each others’ nose, frolicking nymphs (who look as if they were yanked from ‘s Sunnyside), and flapper girls sleeping on the beach ( and seem to be the references here) while men wrestle. No doubt, the children will surely be relieved that it is a Gimli no longer known.

Iris into Einar, Gunnar, and the tale: Einar lives in a hut with hanging fish. With no explanation, he grabs one of the fish, squeezes its guts onto his skull, and combs his hair. Einar and Gunnar were also infected with small pox, which leaves them looking like a low budget, black and white version of ‘s Frankenstein monster.

Having cut his finger, Einar is admitted into the Gimli Hospital. There is a bit of business with an Al Jolson-like blackface and a puppet show entertaining Einar. He is next entertained by the hemorrhaging of a dying man. Like January snowflakes, feathers float through the ward. Einar is introduced to the amorous Gunnar, the rotund, bespectacled patient next to him who carves fish out of bark. Next up, a nurse (who looks like an anorexic Theda Bara) engages in sex with Gunnar. It’s another show for Einar, who watches their silhouettes through a bed sheet. Sexually frustrated, Einar eats the nurse’s hat.

Back in his bed, Einar spins the tale of he and Snjofridur and how he infected her with the mysterious epidemic. Shamefully, Einar rejected Snjofridur, which caused her to die of a broken heart. Gunnar also has a tale of the same maiden, revealing how he came upon her  grave, stole her burial tokens, and engaged in a bit of necrophilia with her corpse.

Foreshadowing the fate of the children’s mother, we are introduced to a pink sepia-hued, Busby Berkely-like heaven with singing, swimming, flapper mermaids.

Naturally, Einar is a tad upset with Gunnar’s confession and the two men wrestle it out to the gruesome finish. Cue bagpipes and an angelic mother ascending to a Wagnerian heaven.

Like most, if not all of Maddin’s films, Tales is a List Contender.

Next week, the sole remaining David Lynch feature film to be covered here: The Elephant Man (1980).

CAPSULE: TROMA’S WAR (1988)

DIRECTED BY: , 

FEATURING: Sean Bowen, Carolyn Beauchamp, Patrick Weathers, Rick Washburn

PLOT: After a plane crash on a Caribbean island, stranded citizens of Tromaville organize to defeat an army of terrorists.

Still from Troma's War (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Working with their largest budget ever, the Troma team loses focus on their signature brand of transgressive comedy with War. Between firing thousands of blank rounds and bursting hundreds of blood squibs, blowing up watchtowers and lighting up stuntmen in flame-retardant suits, War occasionally fools itself into thinking it’s a real action movie rather than an absurd spoof.

COMMENTS: Survivors of the Tromaville flight that crashes onto a not-so-deserted Caribbean island include a lisping flight attendant, a used-car salesman/Vietnam war vet, a busty feminist, an optimistic priest, a sleazy Wall Street financier, a British guy who appears to be a secret agent (he carries curare darts, at least), and the three girl/one guy punk band “The Bearded Clams,” among many others. Their antagonists are “the cream of the crap”: Cubans, the IRA, the PLO, a squad of HIV-positive rapists, a snorting pig-faced colonel, and military-industrial Siamese twins. With a cast like that, just wind them up and let the carnage begin, right?

It’s not quite that easy, it turns out. While War never lags, it never really heats up, either. Troma conceived of War as their opportunity to break into the (relative) mainstream after scoring low budget cult hits with iconic titles like The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986). The resulting project seems to want to be too many things to too many different audiences: it’s a spoof of Rambo and other anti-Communist 1980s action flicks, while at the same time it tries to put together legitimately thrilling, bullet-riddled action scenes. It takes a stab at serious anti-authority satire with the claims that the political left and right are two sides of the same greedy coin, and that the powers-that-be have an interest in cultivating public hysteria, whether it be over Communists, terrorists, or AIDS. But that serious message is undermined when it panders to its horny male teen demographic, with gratuitous female nudity and dirty diaper jokes. The film has ludicrous surreal touches, like the literal Fascist pig and the twins conjoined at the face. (There’s also a strange bit where a hysterical woman looks out from the wreckage and sees crash victims running about on fire, their flaming bodies lit up against the night sky; the problem is, her scenes are shot in the daytime. It’s not clear whether it’s supposed to be a flashback, a joke, or if it’s one of the worst continuity errors of all time, but it appears to be a low-budget first: night-for-day photography). Still, for most of its running time it’s the most “realistic” (relatively speaking) movie Kaufman and Herz ever shot. Other than the farcical firefights where our heroes mow down dozens of terrorists per Uzi burst while the bad guys return fire with Stormtrooper aim, the oddest thing in the film may be its deadpan camp dialogue.  “I have just about had it with you terrorists!” screams a mom-turned-commando as she stuffs a baby’s jumpsuit into a guerrilla’s mouth. War actually does what I’ve been saying Troma should do for years—play it straighter, not indulging in the “we’re deliberately making a bad movie, it’s funny!” jokiness—yet it doesn’t really work this time out. Making bad movies is harder than it sounds.

Troma’s 2015 Blu-ray release is nothing special visually or sonically (not a big surprise given the source material), but as usual the studio packs on the extra features. Several featurettes are ported over from the 2010 “Tromasterpiece” DVD, but there is a new introduction and about 30 minutes of new interviews. In the included commentary, Kaufmann comes across as extremely bitter about the cuts demanded by the MPAA before they would grant the film an “R” rating. He seems to legitimately believe that War was his masterpiece, torpedoed by censorship. Nonsense. Tromeo & Juliet was his masterpiece, and has the Certified Weird laurel to prove it. Even in its uncut state, War is not the glorious adventure it’s made out to be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Military movies just don’t get any more deranged that Troma’s War. All mega-munitions claims aside, this is one completely crazy entertainment.“–Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (Director’s Cut DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: An abusive literary agent believes he is turning into a vampire.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This may be Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and this may be his strangest performance.

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just maybe—that explains Nicolas Cage’s scenery-chewing, furniture-smashing, cockroach-eating performance in Vampire’s Kiss.  It doesn’t explain Peter Loew’s behavior, however. The emotionally battered Alva (a sympathetically depressed Maria Conchita Alonso) gets more to the point: “this guy is very weird.” Loew is a weird guy indeed. It all starts with his from-nowhere accent, which is not European, New England Brahmin, or even “Mid-Atlantic English,” the made-up dialect spouted by Golden Age Hollywood actors like Katherine Hepburn (though that one comes closest). The accent is insane, but it does reveal Loew’s character: this is the kind of guy who would affect an aristocratic dialect in order to give himself airs, but get it wrong—and stick with it, not caring a bit whether it was accurate or not. When such an arrogant and flamboyant character goes crazy, you can bet that the results will be fiery. Cage holds nothing back. He shouts, slurs his words, breaks stuff, eats bugs, screams obscenities, vomits, puts his hand on his hip and prances like a mad Mick Jagger, rants, and makes insane faces with his huge, unblinking eyes. His furious recitation of the alphabet, which plays like a Sesame Street sketch delivered by a drunk guest star with anger management issues, is itself worth the price of admission.

If you’re wondering why this movie seems weird, even without Cage, reflect that it was written by Joseph Minion, who also brought us 1985’s crazyfest After Hours. With a serious psychology manifesting itself through campy fireworks, the picture’s style is halfway between an art film and a B-movie; it exists in a tonal limbo. There are a number of odd features, even putting aside the performance art mimes who hang out outside of Loew’s apartment. Note that Loew is surrounded by women; girlfriends, pick-ups, office secretaries, his female therapist. His only significant relationships are with women, a surprising number of whom wear black garter belts. Might Peter have issues with the opposite sex? (You think?) How did Loew become such a casual sadist, and why does he obsess about vampires in particular? Why does simple act of “misfiling” irritate him so profoundly? (Seems like a metaphor, doesn’t it?) It’s no surprise that so many key sequences take place in the psychiatrist’s office. With all its unexplained, clashing symbols and preoccupations, the movie itself begs for psychoanalysis.

Cage was not a neophyte actor trying to make an impression at the very beginning of his career here. He was coming off a role as the romantic lead in the mainstream hit Moonstruck. Vampire’s Kiss, along with his equally mannered performance as a hick burglar with Shakespearean diction in the Raising Arizona, gained him the reputation as the greatest ham of his generation.

Although fondly remembered by fans, Vampire’s Kiss has always had a hard time finding a home on DVD. It has never been released in it own, but in 2007 MGM paired it with the insultingly bad early Jim Carrey comedy Once Bitten on the “Totally Awesome 80s” double feature DVD.  In 2015 Scream Factory released Kiss on Blu-ray together with the comedy High Spirits. Both editions include a commentary track from Cage and director Robert Bierman.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… requires a style as darkly comic and deft as its bizarre premise. Instead, the film is dominated and destroyed by Mr. Cage’s chaotic, self-indulgent performance. He gives Peter the kind of sporadic, exaggerated mannerisms that should never live outside of acting-class exercises.”–Caryn James, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Frank Henenlotter

FEATURING: Rick Hearst, John Zacherle, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry

PLOT: One morning a young man wakes to find a small, disgusting creature has attached itself to the base of his brain stem. The creature gives him a euphoric state of happiness but in return demands human victims.

Still from Brain Damage (1988)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The above plot description, which is lifted verbatim from the IMDB, describes the “creature” in question as “disgusting.” Not only is this an offensive description, but it outright ignores the fact that the thing has a name: Aymler, or “the Aymler,” more specifically. The unique little guy is far more than just a “creature”; he’s without doubt one of the most charming and well spoken horror presences to ever grace the silver screen. Or, at the very least, he’s the star of Frank Henelotter’s best film.

COMMENTS: Frank Henelotter’s brief heyday in the nineteen eighties is most well remembered through Basket Case, and the lead and his deformed brother of that mondo horror fest have a cameo here. But it’s Brain Damage that is Henelotter’s best film (to date ?). After befriending the Aymler, a seductively smooth talking parasite voiced to perfection by late night horror host John Zacherle (i.e. Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul), our anti-hero struggles with his own doubts, desire and addictions as he is seduced to corruption by the charming but evil creature. Henenlotter’s trademark gore-filled whimsy is on full display here, benefited by his highest budget to date. The film works as a pretty clear cut metaphor for drug addiction on the surface level. The out-there hallucination scenes, which could be compared to certain points in ‘s Altered States, are where the weird tag comes in. The movie also makes use, though admittedly sparingly, of some well-produced stop motion animation sequences, which are a joy to behold those that love this now largely forgotten art. It’s arguable that the List doesn’t need to be populated with a plethora of oddball cult horrors that may be best left on the dusty VHS rack where we found them, but if one Henenlotter film should go on, this is the one. It combines peculiarity with some actual filmic worth. A must see for weird horror aficionados; if you fall into that category and you somehow haven’t already seen this yet—what have you been doing all this time?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While it would win few prizes for narrative sophistication and visual imagination – the euphoric hallucinations seem to have strayed from a ’60s LSD movie – Brain Damage does display a commendable social conscience in deploring the perils of mindbending substances.”–NF, Time Out London

CAPSULE: NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Tenney

FEATURING: Cathy Podewell, Amelia Kinkade, , Alvin Alexis, Lance Fenton, Bill Gallo, Hal Havins

PLOT: Hormonal teenagers spend Halloween night in an abandoned mortuary and are gradually possessed by demons.

Still from Night of the Demons (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its mixture of silly Halloween camp and slightly surreal occultism, this cheesy, culty teen horror deserves just an honorable mention in the annals of weird film.

COMMENTS: Even in 1988, Night of the Demons‘ basic plot—many horny teens go into creepy old house, few come out—was getting long in the tooth. In fact, the premise is so by-the-numbers that you may well be tempted to place bets on whether the lone black character will be the first to die and the virginal girl will be the last survivor. The acting ranges from just barely adequate (the always-welcome Linnea Quigley as the slut, whose insane sexual charisma makes her line deliveries irrelevant) to overwrought (Bill Gallo as an on-the-make greaseball) to hammy (Hal Havins as the piggish jock). This is not the recipe for a great original movie, but along the way something strange happens. Director Kevin Tenney infuses Demons with enough style points and over-the-top set pieces that the movie becomes a nearly perfect execution of its teen-execution formula. It does all the little things that distinguish a lovingly-made formula trash pic from a shoddy, cynical formula trash pic. For example, the fairly large ten-kid cast is characterized shallowly, but efficiently: from snout-nosed “Stooge” to Goth Angela to the exposition guy (who knows which room the maid got bumped off in 50 years ago), each individual archetype pops out distinctly. The animated credits sequence is spooky, expensive-looking Halloween fun that sets up an expectation of professionalism.  Pacing is solid, with enough atmosphere, comedy and shameless T&A up front to keep your interest up, while still leaving room to kick the energy up a few notches when the demons get set loose. The lighting and cinematography are top-notch for a budget genre pic—there’s a very creative and difficult shot where the face of each partygoer is seen reflected in its own shard of glass. Special effects and makeup, and especially the prosthetics (you’ll know what I mean after watching) are also superlative. As for the set pieces, there are at least three great, slightly weird moments: a sexy/scary strobe-light dance to Bauhaus’ “Stigmata Martyr,” a ridiculous epilogue that’s a sick joke on the old urban legend about mean old men putting razor blades in apples, and Linnea Quigley’s justifiably famous lipstick trick (a bit that would have made this a movie to remember even if it contained nothing else of value). Night of the Demons is a nifty little thrill ride that doesn’t stray outside the box in the way an Evil Dead 2 or Cabin in the Woods does, but stands out as an example of how you can still make a reasonably great little haunted house film while staying inside the walls.

Shout! Factory’s lavish 2014 DVD/Blu-ray combo release includes a brand new commentary track with director Tenney along with stars Podewell, Havins and Gallo, while preserving the 2004 Anchor Bay commentary track with Tenney and the producers as a second option. There’s also a new feature-length “making of” documentary to accompany an array of stills, trailers and promotional material.

In one of those too-strange-to-make-up twists, Amelia Kinkade, who played black-clad weirdo Angela, now works as a pet psychic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gross, funny, and full of superb makeup effects, this is a ghoulish treat for fans of the severely demented.”–Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat

CAPSULE: HAIRSPRAY (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, , Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, , , John Waters

PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.

Still from Hairspray (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s just a whisper of the old Trash Trilogy weirdness left in John Waters’ 1960s teen nostalgia movie.

COMMENTS: The first of two films John Waters made in the late 1980s with PG ratings and mainstream aspirations, Hairspray indulges in personal nostalgia for the once-and-future transgressive director. The tone is what you might call mock-saccharine. Set in Baltimore at the dawn of racial integration, much of the action takes place on the set of the local teeny-bopper dance show, where wholesome white suburban youths swivel their hips each afternoon to rhythm and blues hits from black artists, while the darker-hued children wait for “Negro night” to strut their stuff. Hefty “hair hopper” Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) gets her shot at a tryout and turns out to be a huge crowd favorite, earning the ire of previous teen queen bee Amber von Tussle and her showbiz parents. Hairspray isn’t a profoundly weird movie, but neither is it a straightforward one. The level of reality here is about the same as a Hollywood musical (and the characters do break into spontaneous choreographed dance routines), and, although it deals with serious racial issues, there is no more real conflict or danger here than in an Annette Funicello beach movie of the same period. The pro-integration teens are innocent and righteous, and the rigid old guard eventually withers in the face of their enthusiasm, leaving the good guys to celebrate at a sock hop while the bad guys pout in the corner. But, while there’s none of Waters’ trademark nastiness on display here, his arch view of our tacky culture still shines through, especially in the outrageous wardrobes (a roach-studded dress), hairstyles (Debbie Harry sports two different ‘dos that no human being has worn before or since), and decor (the doe-eyed thrift-shop family portraits on the walls of the von Tussle homestead). There’s also the novelty casting: novice actress Ricki Lake (cast because she was the only fat girl Waters could find who could dance), blues singer Ruth Brown, celebrities fallen on hard times like Sony Bono and Pia Zadora, pop stars like Debbie Harry (who’s great as a nasty stage mom) and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (as a Baltimore beatnik), Waters regulars like Mink Stole, and, of course, Divine (both in and out of drag). If that’s not enough outrageousness for you, there’s also Waters himself running around as a psychologist with a hypno-wheel and a cattle prod, trying to shock Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton out of her forbidden “checkerboard” relationship with the black Seawood. Throw in a wino serenade, a trip to a special ed class reserved for “hairdo scofflaws,” and teens doing “vintage” dances like the Roach, the Tailfeather and the Bug, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’s odd without being alienating. This is one of Waters’ most beloved films (admittedly, by a different demographic than the one that worships at the idol of Pink Flamingos) because his genuine fondness for the era and its naively idealistic teenagers comes through on the screen. Even Debbie Harry’s asymmetrical flip hairdo can’t outshine that.

Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and from there into a second feature film in 2007 (with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, and others). The musical remake made more money than the original, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s seen it. The original lands on Blu-ray this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors are best when they avoid exaggeration and remain weirdly sincere. That way, they do nothing to break the vibrant, even hallucinogenic spell of Mr. Waters’s nostalgia.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)