Tag Archives: Asylum

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES (2005)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: César Sarachu, , Amira Casar, Assumpta Serna

PLOT: A doctor brings a piano tuner to his remote asylum to prepare automata for an opera he is staging for the benefit of a beautiful, nearly comatose patient who was once a singer.

Still from Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The general consensus is that The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is one of the weakest of the Quay Brothers‘ cinematic efforts; on the other hand, there is no question that this fairy-tale of dreams, madness and opera is one of their very weirdest.

COMMENTS: “After a while, you get used to the confusion,” the housekeeper tells the piano tuner, as she explains that they call the silent men who are always scurrying around in the background of Dr. Droz’s estate “gardeners,” although they are really patients. Of course, the declaration is actually meant as a reassurance for the audience—but by the time the housekeeper drops that line, thirty minutes in, confusion-averse viewers will have already fled in terror. Dr. Droz has either killed and resurrected, or simply abducted, an opera diva, and is keeping her on his private island, where Alpine architeture mixes with tropical flora. The doctor needs a legendary piano tuner, who also happens to be  dead ringer for the singer’s lost love, to fix his seven automata, and to take part in an elaborate opera he is staging. The piano tuner flirts with the seductive housekeeper until the beautiful mute patient catches his eye. Each night, he has a dream, which is the Quay brothers’ excuse to indulge in the types of bizarre fantasy sequences that they made famous in their short films (although here with only minimal stop-motion animation). We see grotesque singing teeth, boats piloted by disembodied hands, and scenes where everyone moves backwards. We soon strike a rhythm of dreams interrupted by dialogues between the tuner and the housekeeper or doctor, which explain very little of what is ultimately going on on the island. Instead, the doctor likes to tell little stories about fungi that infect the brains of ants and eventually form spikes which bursts through the insects’ heads to release spores.

Piano Tuner is a stylistically overstuffed film. That is both a strength and a weakness. It’s one of those movies that looks like the filmmakers suspected they were never going to get another chance to work with a budget like this again, and felt pressed to get all their grandiose ideas up on screen while they had the opportunity. Individual frames of the film look like they come from paintings or drawings, but from a very eclectic museum: some scenes exhibit the swarthy classicism of a Carvaggio, others look like they come out of a medieval woodcutting, while still others like storybook illustrations from a Grimm fairy tale. There are luminous grottoes, ghostly animations, and distorting lenses. Much of the film features people and objects half hidden in shadows, making them as difficult to make out as the story is. The overall intent is to force us to give up on trying to process the narrative and imagery in the conventional sense, and simply submit to its beauty.

The Quay Brothers explained that, as a condition of funding, Film 4 demanded that they make a more “accessible” movie than their previous effort, Institute Benjamenta. Other than shooting the film in color, it’s hard to see how Piano Tuner could ever meet that standard. Terry Gilliam came in as executive producer to save the project; his name and reputation allowed the Quays to raise the remainder of the money they needed to film their outrageously odd visions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the most strangely and subtly variegated march-past of Love’s delirious mechanisms ever committed to film… Absolutely entrancing!”–Guy Maddin, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who described it as containing “beautiful dreamlike imagery and some all too short sequences of the Quay’s miniature automata.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Recommended

Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra; AKA The Hour-glass Sanitorium; The Sandglass

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Jan Nowicki, Jozef Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek, Ludwik Benoit, Mieczyslaw Voit

Still from The Hourglass Sanitorium (1973)

PLOT: Adapted from several stories by Bruno Schulz, the movie follows Joseph (Nowicki) as he travels by train to a sanitarium to see his dead father. At this particular institution, time is altered, so his father can still be alive within, while in the outside world his death has already occurred; and while waiting for his father’s death to catch up, Joseph appears to go through incidents in his own past, as time curls in on itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Surreal and dream-like, this is probably one of the most artistically successful films of its type—a picturesque journey into death.

COMMENTS: Wojciech Jerzy Has’ two best known films are also the only ones readily available to Western audiences, that other film being The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both are challenging adaptations of literary works thought to be unfilmable. These two movies alone would make impressive bookends in any filmmaker’s career, yet these were made almost a decade apart, and Has’ other films reportedly retain a similar level of quality.

Sanitorium is visually sumptuous, due to the cinematography of Witold Sobocinski and the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. Viewers who are attracted to the visual artistry of  will find much to like and admire here, though the similarity ends there—while Gilliam is no stranger to dark themes in his works, even in the darkest times, he leaves a small light on. Sanitorium doesn’t allow even that minor level of comfort.

The opening image of the film—a silhouette of a bird in mid-air flight, yet seemingly suspended in place–is probably the most potent metaphor for the journey that Joseph takes. Essentially it’s a metaphoric traverse through life to its inevitable end—death—and also an observation of the same journey of an entire culture, in this case the Jews in Europe prior to the start of World War II. While there is no explicit or obvious symbolism present, no swastikas or any mention of the rise of Nazism, the film supports that reading. As Josef goes through various incidents in his childhood, we see the rich life of the community in prosperous times, and as time and decay progresses, so does that community. The last glimpse we see is Joseph witnessing  an exodus of people from town—from what is never specified, although one can surmise, if one knows history.

Sanitorium doesn’t spell itself out for the audience, and that may be the biggest hurdle for viewers, who will either overcome it or throw up their hands in frustration. We go along for the mad journey with Joseph, and the movie makes no concession to the viewer whatsoever. It is the kind of film that yields rewards with multiple viewings, and it probably helps to know Bruno Schulz and something about his work.

Unlike The Saragossa Manuscript, Sanitorium never got an official Region 1 DVD release. The UK DVD company  Mr. Bongo has issued a restored version—“restored” in this context meaning a digital remastering under the supervision of cinematographer Sobocinski. The disc is a Region 0 PAL release, so it should be playable on most computers and some (hacked) DVD/Blu-ray players—check your specs.

Journey to the Underworld – an essay by Steve Mobia with an interpretation of the film, and mention of Has’ other films.

www.schulzian.net – site featuring translations of Schulz’s stories and links.

Wikipedia entry

IMDb entry

109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre… Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-of institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what the film ‘means.’ It seems as though something is being allegorized, but little in the film helps decode it… [Dwarfs is] indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognize our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation.”–Brad Pager in The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer,

PLOT: As the film begins we infer that a group of people in some sort of institution, possibly a mental asylum, have revolted, and an “instructor” has barricaded himself in a manor house while holding one of them prisoner. As the instructor tries to reason with the rebels and waits for the arrival of the police, the insurgents vandalize the property in increasingly bizarre ways: lighting flower pots on fire, fixing a stolen car so that it circles endlessly around a track and throwing crockery at it, and crucifying a monkey. All parts are played by dwarfs, although the buildings and props are scaled normally.

Still from Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Herzog financed Even Dwarfs Started Small, his second feature, with funds he received when he won the German National Film Award for his first feature film, Signs of Life. Dwarfs was then banned by the German censors on its release.
  • The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands.
  • Herzog partially attributes the dark influences of the film to the fact that before making it he had been imprisoned in a third world prison while shooting footage for another movie in Cameroon in the paranoid weeks after a coup attempt. While incarcerated he contracted a blood parasite and ran a high fever.
  • The production was plagued with problems: one of the dwarfs was struck by the driverless car (he was unscathed), then the same actor caught on fire (he had minor injuries). With the morale among the non-professional troupe low, Herzog promised the actors that if they completed the film, he would jump into a cactus patch and allow them to film it. The actors stuck with it and Herzog fulfilled his end of the bargain.
  • A scene of piglets nursing at what appears to be the corpse of their mother is disturbing and proved highly controversial. The sow’s eyes are shut and it lies almost perfectly still, but its legs clearly jerk during the feeding—though perhaps this is just a post-mortem reflex.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hombre, the tiniest dwarf with the most demonic laugh, nearly chuckling himself to death as he watches a camel struggling to rise to its feet. Watch the scene and share an inexplicable nightmare with millions of other human beings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even the title of Even Dwarfs Started Small starts weird. Wha tfollows is a grotesque parade of cannibalistic chickens, insects dressed as a bride and groom, a crucified monkey, a defecating camel, and dwarfs running amok destroying everything in sight. Presented in bleak black and white in a heartlessly cold documentary style, it’s the gloomiest depiction of the triumph of the irrational ever filmed.


Re-release trailer for Even Dwarfs Started Small

COMMENTS: A provocateur knows he is doing something right when he gets criticized from Continue reading 109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

CAPSULE: SESSION 9 (2001)

DIRECTED BY:  Brad Anderson

FEATURING: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, , Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III

PLOT: A hazmat crew removing asbestos from an abandoned asylum uncover secrets about the long-dead but deeply disturbed residents—and, arguably, more chilling secrets about each other.

Still from Session 9 (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The weirdometer registers only trace amounts of bizarrity in this eerie, complex psychological horror.  It’s worth a viewing for fright fans, but not thanks to its strangeness.

COMMENTS: Before Session 9, director Brad Anderson was best known (if he was known at all) for his romantic comedies.  Anderson co-fashioned Session 9‘s complicated, haunted script to take advantage of the availability of an abandoned mental institution, a dream location to shoot a horror movie, and wound up finding a more successful niche as a specialist in psychological suspense.  Disdaining shock violence and other teen horror tropes, Session 9 hoes a tougher row by creating its suspense through characterization, hidden secrets, and (for the most part) by encouraging the audience to imagine unspeakable carnage rather than to get off on seeing it laid out in splattery crimson glory.  The idea here is to throw five average Joes into a pressure cooker situation (finishing a three-week asbestos removal job in one week) inside a suggestively creepy locale, and let the tension build organically as they begin to crack under the stress.  Gordon is the most preoccupied of the bunch: he may lose his struggling business if he doesn’t complete this contract on time, and he’s got a newborn baby back home to feed.  Phil, his right hand man, has his own tense dynamic with the obnoxious Hank: they share an uncomfortable history with a common woman.  Mullet-headed young Jeff is the neophyte kid who gets picked on by the others, and Mike is the thoughtful guy who’s too good for this job (for unknown reasons, he’s dropped out of law school to schlep around in a hazmat suit).  The characterizations aren’t deep, but they’re efficient; we know these guys, we get their conflicting agendas.  Mike’s discovery of old tape recordings of hypnotherapy with a schizophrenic woman—reels labeled sessions 1 to 9—provides a parallel dramatic line, as we periodically hear a tranquil doctor probe the mind of a psychopathic woman with buried issues that may continue to haunt the hosptal’s halls to this day.  Like the Overlook Hotel in Session 9‘s closest ancestor, The Shining, the empty spaces of the asylum are virtually a separate character (there are plenty of tracking shots down abandoned corridors to remind us of ‘s horror).  The grounds are full of memories of the departed: Satanist graffiti scrawled on the walls by the teens who broke in to party there on weekends, old mementos and clippings pasted onto the walls of the patients rooms, and broken bric-a-brac left there by the long-gone staff and by homeless squatters.  Everything is linked by dark, dank underground tunnels connecting the various buildings.  It would be almost impossible to shoot a film in this setting that didn’t raise at least a couple of hairs on the back of your neck, and Anderson’s restrained direction and the ensembles’ paranoiac acting ably amplify the institution’s inherent creepiness.  The ending is too obvious to qualify as a twist, and I wish Anderson had shown Kubrick’s courage to go shamelessly over-the-top every now and then, but Session 9 satisfies as a mature, eerie, and mostly quiet horror—a type of film that’s all too rare nowadays.  What could be scarier than an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of ghosts?  The answer: an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of schizophrenic ghosts.

The asylum in the movie, Danvers State Hospital, was a real abandoned mental institution in Massachusetts. It holds the dubious honor of being known as the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy (a fact referenced in the movie), and later became infamous for overcrowding and inhumane treatment of its inmates.  Most of the buildings on the sprawling campus were torn down in 2006 to construct an apartment complex.  The units burned down in 2007 in a mysterious fire, though they were soon rebuilt.  A 12-minute featurette on the DVD documents the cruel history of the institution.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Save for the disappointing finale, Session 9 proves to be a remarkably spare journey into the confines of the mind and a unique evocation of just how terrifying it is to loose one’s mind.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)

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

LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A mentally unbalanced man meets a modern day Marquis de Sade who convinces him to check himself into a bizarre asylum where the patients roam free.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Readers may think I’m a lunatic myself for not inducting this tale involving the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the first ballot.  To tell the truth, Lunacy comes about as close as a movie can to being a first-ballot inductee without making it.  In defense of my decision to leave it off the List for the time being, I point out that Lunacy may actually be Jan Svankajer’s most conventional movie.  If you mentally remove the startling but inessential stop-animation transitions between scenes, then squint hard, it looks like just a regular horror movie; the director insists as much in his prologue to the film.  Given that this is Svankmajer’s most “normal” and accessible movie, if Lunacy makes the List, then all the Czech director’s work should automatically make it.

COMMENTS:  The trailer explains that ” + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.”  It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents should produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing how they actually mix.  Poe adds the least to the recipe, providing mere plot.  Adaptations of two different stories by the doom-laden 19th century Romantic make appearances here; one is a digression from the main plotline that’s fun but unnecessary, while the other supplies the basic conceit for the entire second half of the movie.  Because the first half of the film is devoted to a long introduction to the characters, with that excursion into an interesting but unrelated Poe tale, Lunacy‘s story doesn’t flow as well as it might; the plot doesn’t really get started in earnest until the movie hits the halfway mark on its run time.  Other than basic story ideas, there is not much of a “Poe” feel to the rest of the film, except whatever lingering flavor comes from the passive, psychologically tormented protagonist Jean (stringy-haired, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)

“My title became Shock Corridor. It had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I was dealing with insanity, racism, patriotism, nuclear warfare, and sexual perversion. How could I have been light with those topics? I purposefully wanted to provoke the audience. The situations I’d portray were shocking and scary. This was going to be a crazy film, ranging from the absurd to the unbearable and tragic.”–Sam Fuller, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Samuel Fuller

FEATURING: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Hari Rhodes, Larry Tucker

PLOT: Johnny Barrett is a journalist obsessed with reaching the pinnacle of his profession—winning a Pulitzer Prize—and convinced that an unsolved murder at a mental institution will provide him the investigative opportunity his career needs.  Barrett arranges to have himself committed so he can interview the three patients who witnessed the crime, over the objections of his stripper girlfriend, who fears that he will lose his mind if he enters the asylum.  Once inside, Barrett tries to pry the information he needs out of the three witnesses during their rare lucid moments, but his constant intercourse with madmen, electric shock treatments, and a traumatic incident in the nympho ward take a toll on his own sanity.

Still from Shock Corridor (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • Samuel Fuller, who had made successful and stylish B-pictures like I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Steel Helmet (1951) and Pickup on South Street (1953) for Twentieth Century Fox, began producing his films independently in 1956 to escape studio control.
  • Fuller’s script was inspired by journalist Nellie Bly, who deliberately had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in 1887 in order to write a piece exposing conditions there.
  • Fuller’s first career was as a journalist; he was a crime beat reporter for the New York Evening Graphic at the age of 17.
  • Shock Corridor was made back-to-back with The Naked Kiss (1964), also starring Constance Towers and also dealing with potentially exploitative, shocking subject matter (in Kiss, prostitution and pedophilia).  The two films are usually considered to be spiritual siblings and are often screened together.
  • The corridor set (the “street”) ended in a painted backdrop meant to give the illusion of stretching off to infinity.  Dwarfs were hired as extras to mill about at the end of the hallway to create a false perspective.
  • Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had previously shot The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955), but ended his career lensing schlock like Madmen of Mandoras, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Navy vs. the Night Monsters.
  • The film was shot in about ten days; Fuller friend John Ford dropped by to visit the set and asked, “Sammy, why are you shooting on this two-bit set?” to which Fuller replied, “No major would touch my yarn, Jack.  It’s warped.”
  • The color scenes are composed of unused Japanese location-scouting footage from Fuller’s House of Bamboo, from an unreleased documentary on the Karaja tribe of Brazil, and home movies from a vacation.
  • Fuller claimed that producer Samuel Firks never gave him his promised share of the profits, but was nonetheless happy with the arrangement because the producer allowed the director complete creative control.
  • When Shock Corridor was awarded a special Humanitarian Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Fuller reportedly declined with the words “this isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film, it’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”
  • Shock Corridor was selected for the National Film Registry in 1996 (the prestigious list of films preserved because of their cultural significance stands at only 550 titles as of 2010).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s hard to beat the thunderstorm in the corridor, it’s the scenes of Constance Towers as a naughty angel doing her hoochie-coochie dance in a feather boa on Peter Breck’s shoulder while he tries to grab some shuteye that make the biggest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Though it features its fair share of stormy strum und drang hallucinations, Shock Corridor would be a weird movie even without the schizoid interludes. Fuller’s film imprisons us inside a mental hospital full of  patients who act nothing like normal people—but the uncanny thing is that they don’t act anything like lunatics, either. They act like symbols. Drenching the film with melodramatic performances, expressionist visuals, outlandish dialogue, and blatant sensationalism, Fuller (consciously or unconsciously) constructs a uniquely nightmarish vision of Cold War America as a hyperreal asylum.


Trailers from Hell on Shock Corridor

COMMENTS:After nearly 50 years, Shock Corridor has lost much of its power to shock  Continue reading 80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)

SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

DIRECTED BY:  George Hickenlooper

FEATURING Billy Bob Thornton, J.T. Walsh, Molly Ringwald, Jefferson Mays, Suzanne Cryer

PLOT: A peek inside an asylum for the criminally insane as a mentally retarded double

murderer chats with a diabolical fellow inmate before being interviewed by a newspaper reporter on the day of his release.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is a short film with unusual subject matter.  The viewer is treated to a vignette portrait of a murderer in an insane asylum.  There is a glimpse of his twisted companion, and a look at the sorts of confused, eccentric bureaucrats who run the place.  All of this is presented against the backdrop of the controversy of social attitudes about the patients.  The piece is strangely cemented together with the premise of a newspaper reporter trying to get an interview with the murderer on the day his sentence expires.  Odd as the setting and premise are, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is really just a demo-clip.  The idea was to get the concept of Billy Bob Thornton’s ability to portray Karl Childers out into the greater film community in order to locate backers and pitch a full-length movie.  It worked, and the mainstream picture Sling Blade was the result.  Most of  Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade is filler, the premise with the reporter being used to make the film longer than a screen test.  As such, the film lacks the substance and quality to be a truly weird movie.

COMMENTS:  In this short film predecessor to Sling Blade we observe a day in the life of a criminal mental patient who is on the verge of social repatriation.  Karl Childers (Thornton) chats with a fellow inmate in an institutional day-room.  Meanwhile, reporter Teresa Tatum (Ringwold) is waiting to interview Childers.

Tatum, who is working on a feature exploring the controversies of releasing criminal patients back into society, pontificates frivolously at long length with a companion (Cryer), then spars with a hesitant and quirky chief hospital administrator (Mays).  Eventually, we are allowed to see Thornton’s skillful performance as Childers when he explains to the reporter the circumstances of his crime.  The interim would be dreadfully uninteresting time filler were it not interspersed with several astounding segments in which J.T. Walsh plays the part of a funny, congenial, but very scary psychotic killer.

The annoying Molly Ringwold, an actress of very modest proportions, puts us to sleep with a Continue reading SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

CAPSULE: SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams

PLOT: A U.S. Marshall with a tragic past investigates a mysterious disappearance at an asylum for the criminally insane on a craggy, isolated Massachusetts island in the 1950s.

Still from Shutter Island (2010)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Scorsese sprinkles a few flakes of weirdness into his mainstream thriller for flavor, but it’s carefully tailored for the mild tastes of the masses.

COMMENTS:  Atmosphere and suspense rule as Scorsese leaves film’s mainland to investigate the genre islands.  With a horror movie aesthetic, a film noir hero and a brainteaser mystery plot, Shutter Island is a mini-history of popular movie mechanics, with some psychology and dark drama thrown in to provide a sense of gravitas.  It’s no masterpiece, but it does effectively draw you into its mysterious labyrinth for two hours.  Overwrought in the best way, this is the type of movie where portentous strings keep coming at the viewer like driving sheets of rain in a hurricane, key scenes take place in darkened cells filled with the criminally insane or in ruined cemeteries, and Nazis, lobotomizing surgeons, and drug-induced hallucinations all play a part in the paranoid plot.  DiCaprio puts in a fine performance as Teddy Daniels, a tough guy whose callous exterior may just be scar tissue from the wounds he’s suffered in a tough life.  A war veteran who was present at the liberation of the Dachau death camps, Daniels may have committed acts that still haunt him; returning home, he turns to booze and then quickly suffers further tragedy when he loses his young wife to a violent tragedy.  Guilt, regret and lust for revenge haunt our hero, and impede his investigation of the murderess who’s disappeared from her locked cell as surely as does administrator Ben Kingsley’s odd reluctance to hand over patient medical files to the two federal marshals.  Scorsese plumbs DiCaprio’s psyche for spooky dream sequences, such as one where he embraces his dead wife while ash falls around them like snow; as the scene progresses her back turn into a burning cinder, while a cascade of blood simultaneously soaks the front of her dress.  As the flick progresses, reality becomes plastic and the seeming illogic of the plot increases; DiCaprio’s flashbacks and dreams take up a larger portion of the action and sometimes bleed into the real world.  Despite a mounting sense of weirdness, though, all is resolved rationally at the end.

You may guess the final twist, or you may not.  The true test of a mystery/thriller is not whether the twist ending surprises you—it’s a bonus if it does and will make the movie a classic, but there are only so many unthought-of tricks that a director can deploy without cheating.  Our capacity to be surprised depends more on cinematic inexperience than anything else.  The true virtue of a thriller is not to fool us but to put us inside the endangered shoes of the protagonist, and fill us with doubts as to our safety, understanding, even sanity.  When this movie’s clicking, the suspense is high and the Gothic atmosphere is thick and beautiful, making it well worth the short ferry ride out to Shutter Island.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like a Hardy Boys mystery directed by David Lynch.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JANNIE TOTSIENS [JOHNNY FAREWELL] (1970)

The “Reader Recommendation” category includes films nominated by our readers as deserving of consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

by Trevor Moses, film archivist at the National Film, Video and Sound Archives (South Africa)

DIRECTED BY: Jans Rautenbach

FEATURING: Cobus Rossouw, Jill Kirkland, Hermien Dommisse, Phillip Swanepoel, Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Lourens Schultz, Patrick Mynhardt, Betty Botha, Sandra Kotze, George Pearce, Jacques Loots.

PLOT: A catatonic mathematics professor with an Oedipus complex (as if the poor man didn’t have enough hassles already) is committed to an asylum which is a microcosm of South African society, circa 1970.  The inmates band together to attempt to restore him to life once more and when one of their number commits suicide because of him, they then attempt something more on his behalf: murder.

Still from Jannie Totsiens (1970)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LISTJannie Totsiens is rather like Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, only far, far more weird, disturbing and funny than that Oscar winning film.  Jans Rautenbach’s film is a microcosmic view of South Africa circa 1970 and an indictment of the blinkered Afrikaner Nationalist enforced attitudes and very dubious morals of the time.

COMMENTS: Allegedly autobiographical in tone, this was South Africa’s first film in the avant-garde genre, one of its very few horror films, and also its first black comedy.  It is now known to be an allegory about the South African situation in 1970 – showing said situation and the country’s inhabitants in the milieu of a home for the insane whose inmates’ lives are flipped by the arrival of a catatonic, mute mathematics professor, the “angel of discord”, as he is referred to by one of the loonies.  Among this merry little band, we find a jilted bride (Hermien Dommisse) whose wedding portrait depicts her holding the hand of a faceless man who locked her up in this house until she went insane, a knife wielding nymphomaniac with Bible thumping parents (Katinka Heyns), an ex Ossewabrandwag soldier with an uncanny resemblance to John Vorster (Don Leonard), a judge (Jacques Loots) who went mad (and consequently hangs up the plants in the asylum’s hothouse in a makeshift gallows) after his daughter’s killer was let off scot free, and a psychotic, lovesick woman (Jill Kirkland) who continuously writes unsent letters to her dead daughter.  Other characters include the sane, disabled artist Frans (Phillip Swanepoel) whose parents locked him up in the asylum because they were ashamed of him, and the Director of the asylum (Lourens Schultz), a weak-willed, gambling, drinking good-for-nothing, almost as mad as those he cares for, whose only purpose in life is to give injections and make his inmates swallow pills.  The seemingly mad and mother-fixated Jannie Pienaar  was supposedly based both on director Jans Rautenbach’s treatment by the critics and some of the more sensitive sections of the South African community, and Rautenbach’s experiences as a clinical psychologist.  He finds himself restored to life because of two major factors: a love triangle which involves him and two of the inmates and the horrific finale when, on the suicide of one of those inmates, Jannie is condemned to death by hanging.  For real.  Not by his neck, but by his feet.

One would have to go very far back or far forward into the future of the South African film industry’s history to find a film as horrific, comic (yes, it is very funny in parts) and perfect as this, with brooding photography (courtesy David Dunn Yarker and Koos Roets, ACS ), an eerie credits puppet show in which the spectre of death intrudes and is frightened away, haunting music by Sam Sklair and oppressive, claustrophobic set and art design.  To unsuspecting first time viewers, this film’s impact is still felt months and years later.  Judging by its’ initial reception in 1970, it is clear that the movie going public in South Africa did not know that they were actually looking into a mirror with themselves as the subjects, notwithstanding the fact that each viewer of this film feels like they have just been dinged on the head with a very large, heavy board when the film ends.

Bruce Lee says in Enter The Dragon, “Boards….. don’t hit back.”  This one does.

This film is available solely in the Afrikaans language and can be purchased from kalahari.net.