“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
–William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” V., 1., 58-63
FEATURING: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
PLOT: Soft-spoken János takes care of his uncle, an aging musician and music theorist, in a small Hungarian town. One day a modest circus, featuring only a stuffed whale and a mysterious freak known as “the Prince” as its attractions, comes to town. János is impressed by the majesty of the whale and sneaks in to see it one night, and overhears the Prince declaring “Terror is here!”
Andreas Werckmeister was a 17th century musical theorist who developed the “well temperament” (as in Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”), a tuning system that competed (and eventually lost out to) the more popular “equal temperament.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Whale’s massive dead eye, juxtaposed with tiny humans.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Drunks enact the Solar System; eye of the Whale; the Prince speaks
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Werckmeister Harmonies is a bleak and obliquely allegorical parable in which a Whale and a Prince bring a local apocalypse to a poor but peaceful Hungarian town. A political horror movie that creeps over you slowly, wrapping you in a fog of mysterious dread.
PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.
WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.
COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.
The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.
Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.
“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse Godard. The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.
FEATURING: Victor Slezak, Anna Juvander, Michael Kirby, Rob Brink, Diane Grotke, Caroline McGee, Robert Morgan, Mariko Takai
PLOT: In a mental institution, a doctor has enticed patients and staff into staging bizarre microdramas and recording them on film. Is he recording his own mental breakdown, or the larger ills of society?
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Inasmuch as cult author J.G. Ballard can still be called “weird” nowadays, the film perfectly captures the clinical nature of his themes and uneasy alliances. One scene is a fashion shoot in the midst of a surgical operation. Another memorable sequence has Traven emerging from a 1950s black sedan on an airport runway shouting “Marilyn Monroe” and breaking into a run with the sound of helicopters on the soundtrack; he inexplicably ends up back at the sedan, vomiting over the front hood.
COMMENTS: The Atrocity Exhibition is another one of the many “unfilmable” novels that some filmmaker, at some point, takes on as a challenge. David Cronenberg first took the plunge, being the first to adapt Ballard’s other “unfilmable” novel, Crash, in the mid-90’s, and largely succeeding. “The Atrocity Exhibition“, however, was slightly more challenging for an adapter: there’s no real plot, just linked incidents; the main character is undergoing a mental breakdown affected by mass media; each chapter represents an aspect of the protagonist’s psychosis (his name changes in each segment); and most of the action is psychological. The book is a collection of themes and ideas showing up in Ballard’s work at the time (the mid to late 1960’s), some of which would be fleshed out/explored further in works like “Crash” and “High Rise,” and is much more fragmentary than most novels.
Jonathan Weiss’s approach in adapting Ballard’s work is geared to the experimental film work in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Using stock-film sequences interspersed with new footage, the film is presented as the artifact from Dr. Traven’s project, staged mini-dramas reflecting his obsessions (assassinations, war, celebrity, plastic surgery, the Space Race) which document his—and by extension, society’s—surrender to psychosis. But is it a surrender, or merely an adaptation to the new order?
Exhibition is perhaps the purest adaption of Ballard’s work to date. The low-budget, as well as the unusual nature of the main role, excluded any casting of name stars, and the movie was shot over the period of several years. It’s not as polished or sexy as Cronenberg’s Crash, but it’s even more intellectually rewarding.
DVD INFO:The Atrocity Exhibition had limited festival screenings in the early ’00’s, but no true theatrical release. It seemed it would languish in obscurity until its release on DVD in 2006 by Reel 23, a European company—Region 0, but on the PAL system—now a pricey import, if you do some hard looking. You get a good transfer of the film in picture and sound, highlighting the score by J.G. Thirwell (“The Venture Bros.”, “Foetus”), subtitles in French, Spanish, German and Dutch, and an informative commentary track by the director. But what makes this release special is a second commentary track with the director and J.G. Ballard together. Ballard doesn’t stick around for the last 20 minutes of the film, pretty much having said whatever he needed to.
A contentious interview with Jonathan Weiss can be found on the “Ballardian” website, along with the review that touched things off.
Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA), selling high-quality and high-end audio equipment, is Jonathan Weiss’ current venture.
FEATURING: Jan Siodlaczek, Pawel Steinert, Daniel Skowronek, Tadeusz Plawecki
PLOT: Just before dying, the Rosicrucian master of a cult of painters in the Polish mining town of Katowice predicts WWII, Stalinism, the atom bomb, and the end of the world via a death ray shot from Saturn.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Lech Majewski seems like the kind of aggressively surreal filmmaker who should be represented with a spot somewhere on the List, and with its mix of Eastern European mysticism and historical absurdism, Angelus is likely the top candidate in his oeuvre—so far, at least.
COMMENTS: Composed of a series of snapshots rather than a typical flowing narrative, Angelus features an extensive gallery of nearly-static tableaux, accompanied by voiceover narration. Many of the compositions, especially those shot outdoors, recall the meticulous constructions of Sergei Parajanov (including the use of splice-editing to cause objects to suddenly materialize on screen). Scenes like the one where a young boy stands eating a roll in the foreground while seven painters stand stock-still in the background, flanking a nude woman who sits on an improvised stage draped in red velvet as the sun rises over a hilltop, inevitably evoke the adjective “painterly.”
As a historical allegory on the fate of post-war Poland, the movie ridicules the absurdities of both Nazism (Hitler is seen soaking his feet in a swastika-bottomed basin) and, for most of its running time, of Stalinism. The cult members (who can actually perform small-scale miracles) hold to their apocalyptic faith in the face of persecution, and guardian angels wander through the landscape offering advice and consolation. Angelus starts off very strong, introducing us to a series of quirky cultists in a highly peculiar situation, but by the time Stalin arrives, it loses much of its narrative momentum, sinking into relatively mundane subplots about life under the Communist regime. One of the cultists has an insatiable sexual appetite, another is an aspiring alchemist sworn to celibacy and who calls his girlfriend “man,” there are dances, the young narrator falls in love with the only pretty maiden in the village, and there is a half-hearted plan to build a modern version of Noah’s Ark. Much of the middle section of the film gets lost in these digressions, which sometimes seem like they would be at home in a more naturalistic-minded film, until we finally circle back to the death-ray-from-Saturn plot. It all ends in an unusually abrupt fashion.
Billed as a “komedia metafizyczna,” the film’s main purpose is to demonstrate the resilience of man’s spiritual nature under even the most repressive social orders. The cult’s beliefs may be ludicrous, but they are soulful, and despite their oddities their dogmas are far preferable to the equally absurd ideologies designed by cynical dictators as tools of subjugation.
Angelus is available in a region-free DVD with English subtitles, although the menus are exclusively in Polish. The seller I bought it from included a handy “cheat sheet” with Polish-to-English translations to help with navigation. This article from a Polish culture website describes the historical Silesian cult that inspired Majewski’s story.
FEATURING: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio
PLOT: To find the whereabouts of a serial killer’s impending victim, who is still alive in captivity, the FBI enlists the aid of a psychotherapy group that has the developed the technology to enter and explore the minds of others.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Cell is a visually impressive movie that holds up pretty well after fifteen years. When not inside the mind of the killer, however, the story falls into the formulaic and serendipitous far too often.
COMMENTS: On the face of it, Tarsem Singh’s the Cell would seem an obvious candidate for Certification. The first long-form work of a music video director visually influenced by the likes of H.R. Giger and the Brothers Quay, it features a clip from Fantastic Planet and stars one of the stranger actors of the day (Vincent D’Onofrio). As far as the movie goes with these elements it plows heavily into weird spaces. However, the nightmarish set-pieces are tacked on to a standard serial killer/FBI pursuit procedural. (Or perhaps vice versa—the movie treads a fine line.)
The weird moments are a hoot to watch. Going all-out creepy with the sets and costume, the Cell has wonderful blasts of unsettling vignettes as it explores the mind of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), first by social worker-turned-psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and, after she gets sucked into that “reality,” by special agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in one of those “straight” roles I really wish he’d return to).The murderer’s mind is dominated by an entity that acts as the all-powerful king of this grim realm, but there is a flicker of humanity personified by a young boy who represents the vestiges of abused goodness inside. Killer Carl— a seriously unhinged man smashed to pieces by guilt over his past acts and his despair at having been so badly mistreated by his father—also appears in his own mind. (Having suffered from a viral schizophrenic disorder brought on by a particularly heartless baptism didn’t help things, either.)
But aside from split-open-but-living equines, macabre doll-people shadow boxes, obvious (but venerable) surrealist art nods, and a chilling performance from D’Onofrio as the mind’s King, you have perhaps the most run-of-the-mill crime thrillers imaginable. Stargher has been murdering for some time, and one suspects he wants to be caught, but the string of coincidences (albino German Shepherd purchased by the owner of just the right truck stands out as one of several examples) become unbelievable, to the point that the phrase “how convenient” can’t help but spring to mind.
That said, the movie is still pretty neat. Jennifer Lopez is somewhere between adequate and good in her role as a social worker. Her attempts to help a young troubled boy, Mister “E” (whose existence acts as the story’s frame around the frame), are touching. Vince Vaughn does the best he can with a one-dimensional character (his FBI agent apparently was originally a prosecutor who saw one-too-many baddies slip the noose because of good lawyering), and reminded me that he does his best work when not pushing for laughs.
Tarsem Singh’s visually striking opus from 2000 proves to be a decent effort as a qualifying time-trial. In 2006 he opted to go all-out, spending many millions of his own cash for the privilege, for his next movie, the Fall. Although the Cell does not quite hit the mark, there are those who feel his follow-up is a Certified contender; stay tuned.
FEATURING: Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Nina Garbiras, Leslie Hope, Tom Atkins
PLOT: Henry Creedlow works to provide for and please his cheating, social-climbing wife. An event from a masquerade party takes on a real world tangibility, signifying his nobody existence but also allowing him to take forceful and violent control of an out-of-control life.
PLOT: A mute woman who runs a fishing resort becomes obsessed with a suicidal fugitive hiding out in one of the floating cabins.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a bizarre, perverted sadomasochistic love story in a unique setting, made with skill and a few touches of surrealism.
COMMENTS: One of the most unique features of The Isle is the peculiar setting: a fishing resort on a picture-postcard lake dotted with one-room floating cabins for rent. Guests spend their days drinking beer, staring at the misty mountains in the distance, and fishing off their doorstep; while there they are almost completely dependent on the stunningly beautiful, mute proprietress, who ferries them back and forth to the shore and delivers bait, coffee, and prostitutes in her dinghy. (The hideaway appears to make more money off of escort services and wealthy men sailing their mistresses out to a bungalow for some floating hanky-panky than it does off of fishing). One day, the woman pilots a quiet, handsome man out to the yellow float; he catches her eye when she discovers that he is suicidal and has sailed out to the lake to work up the courage to bump himself off. This is the setup for a very odd romance that develops between two lovers with tormented pasts—backstories that are never fully explained but are hinted at by the obsessive fury with which they fall for each other and the self-loathing ferocity with which they mutilate themselves.
For a romantic drama, The Isle has a relatively high body count; but, despite a few horrific moments, no one will confuse this arthouse effort with a slasher. The tone is always straightforward and serious—even solemn—and this matter-of-fact treatment makes some of the bizarre occurrences near the end seem almost believable. The aquatic setting supplies a built-in metaphor for submerged meanings and hidden psychological depths, and beautifully murky underwater shots abound. Particularly lovely is a shot where Jung Suh, whose character moves above and below the waterline at will, peers down into the fathoms while her long jet black hair floats like seaweed behind her. Other strange and memorable moments include what is likely to be the most improbable and painfully gruesome suicide attempt you’ve ever seen, and a mysteriously surreal parting shot of a bushy island of green reeds. Evoking the mysterious power of mutually destructive attraction, The Isle is a movie that just might get its hooks in you—although hopefully not as literally as it gets its hooks inside its characters.
Fair warning to animal lovers: it does not appear that the Korean chapter of PETA was allowed on set for this shoot, as violence against vertebrates is a running theme in the film. The Isle features a frog skinned and pulled apart, sushi made and eaten from a living fish as it flops around, a drowned bird, and a dog choked by a leash and struck. Although some of the cruelty is faked, some of it clearly is not.
“I do not work with intentions… That has nothing to do with freedom of the imagination… My preference is certainly for subsequent interpretation rather than intention. In Little Otik, the child devours its ‘parents.’ Otik is the product of their desire, their rebellion against nature. This is not a child in the real sense of the world, but the materialization of desire, of a rebellion. That is the tragic dimension of the human destiny. It is impossible to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the proper subject of freedom.”–Jan Svankamjer, 2006 interview with Peter Hames
FEATURING: Kristina Adamcová, Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl
PLOT: Karel and Bozena are an infertile couple obsessed with becoming pregnant; one day, as a joke, Karel brings his wife a tree stump that looks a little like a child, but the woman immediately begins treating it as if it were a real baby. Bozena goes so far as to fake a pregnancy, and the husband is shocked when the piece of wood actually comes to life. Parenthood proves difficult when they discover in that the wooden child needs to be fed and has an insatiable craving for red meat; meanwhile, their sexually curious ten-year old neighbor is also obsessed with little Otik and begins to suspect his secret…
The story is a modern adaptation of the Eastern European fairy tale “Otesánek,” as collected by the folklorist K.J. Erben. The original fable is recounted in a storybook-animated film-within-a-film.
Jan Svankmajer’s late wife, the painter Eva Švankmajerová, had illustrated “Otesánek” for a children’s book in the 1970s.
Per Svankmajer, in Czech the word “otesánek” (which is derived from the verb “to hew” plus a diminutive “-ánek” which denotes a child) is used for a person “who devours and digests everything (not only food).”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Crazy-eyed Bozena breastfeeding a log in maternal bliss—particularly when the camera zooms in to show a closeup of Otik hungrily suctioning milk through his stump. (As a footnote, one of Little Otik‘s iconic images isn’t actually in the movie. A bizarre still of Alzbetka licking a fried egg was featured prominently in the Otik‘s promotional material, but that precise shot does not appear in the film).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This modernized fairy-tale adaptation about an insatiable man-eating tree stump baby is actually Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional and accessible story (by far). Of course, in Svankmajer’s world, a conventional narrative includes scenes where street vendors fish infants out of tanks, wrap them in newspaper and sell them to passersby. There’s something seminal about this freaky film that mixes black comedy with dashes of horror and flecks of surrealism; it’s an excellent, comprehensible-yet-mysterious entry-level bizarre film for the neophyte weirdster.
FEATURING: Chris Morris, Mark Heap, Amelia Bullmore, David Cann, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Roz McCutcheon
PLOT: “Jam” was a six episode TV series that originally aired on UK TV Channel 4. Each 25
minute episode was aired without ad breaks or credits. The show featured various “sketches” and faux interviews dealing with suicide, murder, sexual abuse, rape, child death, and medical malpractice. The whole thing was backed by occasionally intrusive ambient music and some segments were filmed or dubbed in an out of synch fashion that made them even more awkward and disturbing than the subject matter would suggest.
The show was repeated at a later hour as “Jaaam!” This variation took the original sketches and remixed the visuals to make the viewing experience more tricky and surreal with shots sped up, fed through filters and replaced with stills. Many of the sketches were born in a BBC Radio 1 very late night/early morning show called “Blue Jam” which mixed vocal skits with ambient tracks. Some of the radio sketches were taken directly from the old soundtrack and then lip synched on TV, resulting in another layer in the onion of weird that was “Jam.”
COMMENTS: To mix preserves, “Jam” is like Marmite: you’ll either love it or hate it. Allow me to give you a taster.
A couple believes their young daughter is a 45 year old man trapped in a young girl’s body, so they have the genitals of a 45 year old man grafted to her body.
A woman calls a plumber to her house to fix her dead baby. He is aghast, but she explains the baby is only 3 weeks old and they’re meant to last longer than that, and after all “it’s just pipes really.” In a throwaway comment she reveals that the father has said he will leave if she doesn’t stop “going on about the pipes.” An offer of £1000/hour convinces the plumber to give it a try, and later he takes her up to the bedroom to see his work. He’s plumbed the baby’s corpse into the heating system to make it warm and added a little tap so it will gurgle.
A couple bargaining for a house negotiate a reduction in price in return for sex sessions with the seller. When he receives a better offer, he threatens to renege on the deal, so they offer the services of the husband’s mentally disabled sister.