Tag Archives: B-Movie

307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

“There are a lot of strange men practicing medicine these days.”–The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT: Dr. Phibes is an underground aristocrat who has sworn a campaign of revenge against the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In his downtime, he listens to his automaton orchestra in his bizarre Art Deco lair and stages dance numbers with his beautiful mute assistant. A series of gruesome and bizarre murders, themed after Egyptian biblical plagues, attracts the attention of Scotland Yard, who strive to put together the puzzle and stop Phibes.

still from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • The ten Biblical plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus 7-12 were (in order) blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn. Phibes replaces gnats and flies with bats and rats.
  • Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein (not to be confused with the more famous William Goldman) has just three screenwriting credits on his IMDB page: this movie, this movie’s misbegotten sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), about a team of dogs trained to thwart an armored car heist. His short, yet quirky, career also includes a series of self-published sequels to Phibes.
  • The initial movie poster was a collage of bad judgments. It spoils Dr. Phibes’ disfigured face, which was supposed to be a surprise near the ending; it implies a romance between Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia that never happens; and the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re ugly,” a parody of 1970‘s Love Story, set up audiences to expect a romantic comedy—to their doubtless bewilderment.
  • Phibes fits the description of the rarely appreciated genre known as Diesel Punk. It’s set in the early decades of the 20th century and features a highly speculative series of plot devices involving technology that would at least have been cutting edge for the time. It’s also a museum of Art Deco styles.
  • In this pre-CGI year of 1971, some of the scenes involving animals don’t come off too well. The bats scene was done with harmless fruit bats, who adorably cuddle up on the victim’s bed while they’re supposed to be menacing. The later rats in the cockpit were equally unconvincing as a threat.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We give the obligatory disclaimer that we have a multitude of scenes to choose from. Of all the elaborate deaths, the amphibian death mask stands tall as the signature moment. One of Dr. Phibes’ victims attends a costume party with a frog’s head mask supplied by Phibes himself. The mask is designed to slowly crush the victim’s head. As Dr. Hargraves falls downstairs and the mask squeezes the last drops of blood from his head, the party music plays on and a crowd of animal-headed guests look down. The scene strikes the perfect note between the grotesque and the campy, and upon that note the theme of this movie plays.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Animatronic swing band; unicorn impalement; Brussels sprout locust bait.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dr. Phibes is the character Vincent Price was born to play. What more need we say? Ten times larger than life, Dr. Phibes is a dish of ham and cheese, a pulp villain sprung whole from the pages of vintage horror comics. The elaborate murder plots of his bent imagination fit perfectly into this film’s campy Art Deco/diesel-punk universe like a rare sapphire on a Faberge egg.

Original trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes

COMMENTS: The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with our title character (Vincent Price) rising from the floor on a mobile pipe organ, Continue reading 307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Jack Sholder

FEATURING: Andrew Divoff, Holly Fields, Chris Weber

PLOT: In a direct-to-video sequel (the first of three) an ancient evil genie (djinn) breaks free of his prison again, tries to conquer Earth with his rule-bound goal of unleashing all djinn onto humanity again, and gets shut down by a panicked, but barely resourceful, female protagonist again.

Still from Wishmaster 2: The Evil Within (1999)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a color-by-numbers horror flick intended to thrill, but not challenge, lite-beer-chugging mall rats. It is so shrink-wrapped and pre-fabbed that it if it were a microwavable meal the ingredients would begin with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Someday, the imaginative horror factory that is the enterprise may demand our attention on the List. But it is not this day, and this is certainly not the movie.

COMMENTS: The whole Wishmaster franchise is the kind of premise that a first-year creative writing student at community college would pounce on with joy, and an experienced fantasy writer would know not to touch with a ten-foot-pole. An evil genie (djinn—gesundheit!) is unleashed on the world with the power to grant humans wishes, but subject to his own malicious interpretations of the wording. Besides a few exceptions (he can’t destroy himself, or re-arrange the fabric of space-time), he has unlimited powers. Think of the potential! And that’s exactly the problem with these kinds of premises: no matter what you do to actualize that potential, it will never live up to what you COULD have done. It’s like having God as a character in your story: whatever the payoff, God ends up being a wimpy letdown, unless you play it for laughs with a lampshade upon this very limitation. Moral of the story: don’t bite off more than you can chew, i.e., by adding God, or nearly God-like, antagonists.

But since when did more ambition than capability ever slow franchise originator Wes Craven down? So, djinn are a race of evil angels starting from the dawn of creation, and the boss djinn, when freed, has the goal of unleashing all his kind to rule humanity. The catch is, to do so he has to grant three wishes for the unlucky human who releases him from his bottle/lamp/(or in this case) ruby red gem. Numerous legalistic restrictions apply, because God may have been reckless in creating these things, but he had some good lawyers to back Him up. It says right here in the D&D manual that the djinn may take the soul of any human he grants a wish to (more play-toys for his dungeon), and he may interpret the wish in whatever outlandishly gruesome way he pleases, no taksey-backsies. As you might guess, careless mumbling around an evil djinn never leads to a happy outcome, and the people in the Wishmaster universe make a (short) career out of saying the stupidest possible things and instantly getting punished for it. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Continue reading CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

CAPSULE: THE PIT (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Lew Lehman

FEATURING: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias

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

Still from The Pit (1981)

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

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

LIST CANDIDATE: DOWN AND DIRTY DUCK (1974)

AKA Dirty Duck; Cheap (working title)

DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson

FEATURING: Voices of , , Robert Ridgely, Cynthia Adler

PLOT: Miquetoast Willard works at an insurance company where he hopes to woo a coworker, but crossing paths with a duck leads him on a psychedelic journey of sexual awakening and New Age enlightenment.

Still from Down and Dirty Duck (1974)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Animated anti-establishment Yippie circlejerks are obligated to be at least a little weird, but even within that category, the Duck soars above the competition (especially Fritz the Cat). It is much more surreal than it had to be, and for that, we thank it.

COMMENTS: Duck starts with an introduction by a used-car-salesman-cum-host of the late night movie variety, complete with funny animal sidekick—a reference to 1970s TV staples such as Cal Worthington, for those of you who never lived on the left coast. The dated cultural references get harder and harder to explain from here, but considering our protagonist, a human insurance investigator named Willard, starts his day by sniffing a potted flower which morphs into a woman’s head he kisses and a set of boobs he motorboats, being misunderstood wasn’t exactly this movie’s chief phobia.

Willard has a rich fantasy life to make up for his wimpy demeanor. When brushed aside by a horny couple at the bus stop, he morphs into King Kong and strips the girl naked and hold her in his palm. Next, he turns his abusive boss into a basketball for some Harlem Globetrotters tricks. There’s a scene like this every few minutes, to the point where we lose track of what’s going on in the story and what’s just another of Willard’s flights of fancy. But anyway, we’re pretty sure the plot is that Willard has a crush on a girl at work and plans to ask her out, but will be thwarted by this cruel universe which constantly taunts him with lascivious female bodies that he cannot have.

But what was this movie about again? Oh, yes, a duck. A duck with a Ouija-board-reading owner with a gig at a tattoo parlor. Willard visits them regarding the woman’s life insurance claim (she is not, in fact, dead) and is mistaken for a wizard from a prophecy. He denies it, but doesn’t help his case when she drops dead at a harsh word from him. But this gives the insurance man and the duck a great excuse to hit the road on a voyage of sexual awakening through the psychedelic landscape of 70s Americana. The duck interrupts Willard’s guilt trip by popping out of a toilet to hand Willard his robe and wizard hat. While Willard is devoid of actual magical powers, the movie around him just gets more free-form and dreamlike. Scenery drops in from behind, new characters sprout from the ground, nonsensical conversations occur, then on to the next scene. We’re pretty sure they go to a brothel. They get stranded in the desert for a long time and encounter lesbians and a cop doing the most hilarious John Wayne impression ever filmed. And then there’s that ending, as if your head weren’t tied in enough knots already.

At some point, you have to give up trying to make sense of anything, turn off your brain, and accept that this is an extended Flo & Eddie musical with animation that hits the mark between ’s photo manipulation montages and the X-rated side of “Sergeant Pepper.” Except even the animation shifts, between flowing body parts in Freudian jests that would do proud, to crude scribbles that even a preschooler would discard. Anything goes! If this movie sent just one hippie on a bad acid trip screaming naked from the theater, then it did its job and wanted for no more. We get a cute little reference to Volman’s musical roots in both The Turtles and The Mothers of Invention, which fits perfectly because Down and Dirty Duck reads mostly like an extended act break skit one might find on one of ‘s “You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore” albums. On the whole, it’s talented, funny people messing around mostly to please themselves, so sit back and enjoy the ride. If you happen to twist up a doobie to keep your mind limber enough to appreciate the trip, it’s certainly allowed.

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Down and Dirty Duck – Cinema Snob – This movie would barely be known today if the Cinema Snob hadn’t rediscovered it for Generation YouTube (not safe for work)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Dirty Duck is memorable for many reasons, including Swenson’s surreal and abstract sequences (hand-drawn/cut animated scenes over collages), but mostly for its offensive, highly sexual, satirical and slapstick tone, which was apparently wasn’t for everyone, even in the early 70s, when people were a little more open-minded.”–Bryan Thoman, nightflight.com

LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Abbott, , David Gale, Robert Sampson

PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.Still from Re-Animator (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.

COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that ‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films[1] to come from the golden ’80s.

With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.

Stuart Gordon was a director of an avant-garde theater troupe, and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

  1. Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand. []

CAPSULE: TOURIST TRAP (1979)

DIRECTED BY: David Schmoeller

FEATURING: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Tanya Roberts

PLOT: A group of teenagers have car trouble in the back country and find themselves stuck at a closed museum exhibiting creepy, realistic mannequins.

Still from Tourist Trap (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it be an excellent cult horror classic, this one ranks in the bottom half when it comes to real weirdness. If 2013’s Evil Dead or 2012’s The Cabin In The Woods don’t make the list, what chance does Tourist Trap have? While it’s a memorable horror film, Freddy Kruger picks weirder things out of his teeth.

COMMENTS: Weird movie fans approaching Tourist Trap will have reason to get their hopes up when they see the director, David Schmoeller. He also directed Crawlspace (1986), which is one of the better examples of a cult horror classic and a decidedly offbeat production. And nothing says “you came to the right movie” like the opening music theme, which is a perfect blend of whimsy and dread. Soon we will encounter the ISO standard horror cliches: carloads of young folks, a flat tire, the creepy old rest stop in the middle of nowhere, and the first sacrificial lamb killed off in a sentient room full of laughing mannequins. Ten minutes in, you’ll swear you’re watching an Evil Dead installment, until you remember this was done two years before Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell first ventured into the Tennessee woods. However, by the halfway mark, after you’ve gotten a better map of this film’s universe, there will be no doubt in your mind that Crawlspace’s director made this. Unique villains are David Schmoeller’s forte.

So a carload of teenagers on some kind of outing stumble upon the “Lost Oasis,” a museum now long closed ever since the new highway went through. Stranded with the typical horror-movie car malady, the broke-down kids soon meet Mr. Slausen (horse opera vet Chuck Connors), who runs a decrepit museum of mannequins. Slausen is chock full of exposition about this creepy place, a locale that practically begs for Scooby-Doo and Shaggy to run around stumbling into the trap doors and secret passageways. As it is, the gang of kids do a knock-out job of being dim-witted horror movie teens, insisting on going skinny dipping in muddy ponds in the middle of nowhere, or splitting off alone from the group to inspect deserted houses at night—even after they’ve been warned—because they’re just so darned curious. To the movie’s credit, once we put all the pieces together and gotten to know our antagonist, we get a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. For a low budget flick with little to work with beyond old theater parts and department store fixtures, it wrings out every ounce of scare value from its limited arsenal.

Tourist Trap suffers from Trope Codifier syndrome, causing it not to age well even though it originated many of the characteristics we now view jadedly. We see it today as a derivative mad slasher flick, but that genre was just being born when this movie came out. The wayward teens might as well have numbers branded on their foreheads to show the order they’ll be picked off. The story is loaded with creepy atmosphere, but very thin on logic. Gosh, those mannequins sure seem life-like, as if their eyes follow you around… now you see where this is going. Tourist Trap is redeemed if you recall that it came out one year before Friday the 13th and just one year after Halloween. Dyed-in-the-wool horror/slasher fans will want to see this movie to check it off the must-see list, but weird fans will find little to hold their attention past the sheer offbeat charm of it all and the occasional hilarious one-liner. Make no mistake, you’ll at least get a shiver from the mannequins the next time you’re browsing in the department store at your local dusty, half-deserted mall, which just goes to show that Tourist Trap has done the job it set out to do.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Even though the pic couldn’t be dumber or more senseless, for some it might have some appeal because of its oddness.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

This movie was made for Kindertrauma:

Tourist Trap

Crawlspace (also by David Schmoeller) review at Tenebrous Kate’s:

Crawlspace [1986]

283. THE TINGLER (1959)

“Now please don’t fool with that stuff alone, Warren, it can produce some pretty weird effects.”—Lab assistant warning Vincent Price against taking LSD in The Tingler

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Castle

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts

PLOT: Scruple-challenged scientist Dr. Warren Chapin discovers that a creature called “the Tingler” lives within the human spine. This creature grows when the host experiences fear, and shrinks when they scream. When an extracted Tingler escapes, Chapin and his assistant must race to re-capture the beast before it unleashes its terror—maybe right here inside this very movie theater!

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director/producer Castle, master of publicity-grabbing gimmicks, applied several such techniques to The Tingler, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater, and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture. The most notorious gimmick in his oeuvre, however, was undoubtedly “Percepto.” For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric airplane de-icing engines. At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting (or eagerly-hoping) viewers with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • Although best known for his B-movies, Castle’s resume is not exclusively low-budget shockers. He was an as assistant director on The Lady from Shanghai, and produced ‘s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. (He has a cameo as a man wanting to use Mia Farrow’s phone booth.)
  • Price’s self-administered LSD experience was reportedly the first ever cinematic acid trip. Castle was so eager to clue in the audience to what was going on that he printed the name of the scientific monograph Price is reading on the back of the volume.
  • Directors and John Waters included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for the Sight and Sound 2002 poll of the greatest films of all time.
  • Shane Wilson’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even without the electrified seats, The Tingler is an odd little enterprise. Between the confident pseudoscientific explanations, the wildly shifting tone, and the utter commitment to the absurd and goofily executed premise, it’s a strange and silly cinematic experience. But “Percepto” ups the ante considerably. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons and to play upon their emotions, The Tingler was now actively threatening the audience with physical harm. By bringing the actual audience inside the film, Castle’s gimmick becomes a means to shatter the fourth wall completely, paving the way for the interactive experiences viewers treasure so much now.


Original trailer for The Tingler

COMMENTS: Let’s not kid ourselves. The Tingler is very silly. Consider that the entire premise of the film is based on literalizing the Continue reading 283. THE TINGLER (1959)

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: G. J. Echternkamp

FEATURING: Manu Bennett, Marci Miller, Yancy Butler,

PLOT: In a dystopian future, drivers compete in a cross-country race where the competitors score points for speed and vehicular homicide.

Still from Death Race 2050 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being the fifth film to bear the Death Race marque, the 2050 incarnation is a pretty straightforward race picture, with some absurd gore and strident satire glommed on for extra measure.

COMMENTS: The title card identifies this movie properly as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, and when you get to be 90 years old and won an Oscar just for the sheer volume of your output, then you’re damned right you get to throw your name up there. But now that he’s put himself front and center, it’s important to remember that a lot of Roger Corman movies are bad. When we think of filmmakers like , James Cameron, or Ron Howard getting their start in Corman’s low-budget film factory, the context is that they are all talented filmmakers who overcame humble origins. Death Race 2050 does not manage to outshine its pedigree, whether that be the Corman exploitation mill, the shadow of the original Death Race 2000, or the many films from which it liberally borrows. In that sense, it’s a fitting addition to the Corman canon.

Allegedly, Corman instigated the idea after a journalist suggested that his original Death Race had much in common with The Hunger Games. Evidently, he opted to solidify the connection by carrying over as many elements of The Hunger Games as he could legitimately steal, from the bread-and-circuses atmosphere to the preening chief executive to the destitute-man’s Stanley Tucci who emcees the whole affair. But it owes just as much to the rock-stupid future depicted in Idiocracy, to say nothing of the original film, whose beats are carefully replicated here.

Ostensibly the tale of a fallen America’s favorite bloodsport, Death Race 2050 pits five cars against each other in a race across a country that is largely free of people, presumably because they all remain indoors to enjoy the race from their squalid-yet-VR-enabled homes. Given how many of the remaining citizens wind up dead at the hands of the racers, it’s hard to tell whether reality TV is the ultimate killer, or the only thing keeping our descendants alive.

As for the racers themselves, one is a robot car susceptible to brain damage, while two are stereotypes (a black nationalist rap star whose hit song consists almost entirely of the poetic lyrics, “Death Death Kill Kill”, and a fundamentalist Christian televangelist who proudly builds her pulpit on terrorism). That leaves two for our primary showdown: Jed Perfectus, the probably-gay prima donna with a chip on his shoulder who struts around practically naked (he has a spectacular chin, but beyond that is not exactly a flawless specimen), and Frankenstein, the world-weary champion who is pretty much annoyed with everyone. Overseeing all of this is Malcolm McDowell, honing his accumulated phoning-it-in skills with a barely-trying American accent and a floppy hairdo that might remind viewers of another arrogant leader who cons the public and suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

The writers want to have fun with the rampant commercialism that has destroyed the country (the best such joke is this wonderful location card: “Washington, D.C. [formerly Dubai]”), but the humor is paper-thin. For every joke that carries a little weight if you stop to think about it (i.e. the aerosol cheese that’s also a mood stabilizer), twice as many are simplistic (the new American flag replaces the stars with dollar signs), depraved (a passenger literally has sex with the robot car), or low-hanging (fans drink paint-can-sized beverages labeled “Zoda!”). The film is aware of its limitations (a conversation between two women takes place in “The Bechdel Lounge”) but helpless to overcome them. Characters switch sides just because, abandon long-held beliefs just because, and generally do whatever is required to get them to the next jokey part of the country.

But you’re not really watching Death Race 2050 for its Thurberian wit, so who cares as long as there’s some thrills in this Death Race? Which turns out to be an even bigger problem: no one believes for a minute that these cars are going faster than 30 mph, even fewer will imagine that these actors got anywhere near the steering wheel, and most of the carnage consists of bloody entrails being hurled at windshields. When you aim to combine satire and action, and don’t really score on either count, you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment.

Death Race 2050 wants to be a few different movies, but doesn’t really score at any one of them. As a result, it’s never actively bad, but not particularly good, which makes it very disposable as entertainment. Fortunately, there are four other Death Race films you can try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Death Race 2050 is grating and insane … Even more than the original, this flick is a garish cartoon and as such, it will likely isolate audiences looking for the humorless thrills of the previous Death Race series or those just looking for a straight action flick. No, this incarnation of Death Race feels like a smutty app from Hell, rather than a conventional genre film.” — Chris Alexander, ComingSoon.net

CAPSULE: BRAIN DEAD (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Simon

FEATURING: , , , Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor

PLOT: At the request of a pushy corporation, a neurologist performs experimental surgery on a paranoid mathematician, but when he starts having hallucinations he questions whether he may be the patient rather than the doctor.

Still from Brain Dead (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s definitely within the weird genre, but held back by its budget and by subtext-free sensibilities that stay firmly nailed to the plot’s surface.

COMMENTS: Brain Dead is like what would result if directed an unproduced script. (In fact, Roger’s wife Julie produced this for their Concorde/New Horizons B-movie outfit, and it came from an unproduced script by “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont). That sounds like a recipe for fun, and to a large extent it is, although there is not as much senseless sex and violence as you might hope for.

Before it spins into hallucinatory tangents for its entire second half, the plot is relatively simple. Bill Pullman is Rex Martin, a brain scientist researching paranoia; old college buddy Bill Paxton is a corporate stooge for Eunice Corporation who needs a favor. Halsey (Bud Cort), a former Eunice employee and mathematical genius, killed his family and is now locked in a mental hospital believing himself to be an accountant for a mattress company, but he actually has crucial corporate secrets locked inside his schizophrenic brain. The deal: perform experimental brain surgery on him, or lose all your research funding. After a homeless man tries to seize a brain in a jar Dr. Martin is inexplicably taking home after work (“he’s got my brain!”), a car accident results in the paranoid schizophrenic’s grey matter being splattered on the asphalt (the one in the jar, not the one in the homeless guy). Soon after, Martin agrees to perform the procedure. It’s a success, but with a side effect: Martin is now seeing the white-coated, bloodstained figure Halsey claims killed his family.

After this setup, things get really wild as Martin loses grips on who he is. Is he really Halsey, under the delusion he’s Martin? Or has his mind been somehow tampered with by Eunice corporation so that he won’t be able to rat on them? Whatever the case, reality becomes plastic as Martin fights to keep his identity against the mounting evidence that he is not who he believes himself to be. He sees his wife murdered and is blamed for the killing; he’s incarcerated at the same hospital as Hawlsey and drugged; fleeing from orderlies, he ducks into a room inspired by Shock Corridor‘s nympho ward; he has an out-of-body experience and falls into Hawlsey’s brain (depicted as an ocean), and so on. There’s a sensible enough literal explanation at the end, for those who care for such things. The rest of us will wonder if David Lynch saw Brain Dead before deciding to cast Pullman in Lost Highway, and thought “I can do this better—and without the safety net.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Yep, it’s Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton in the very same (and rather weird) little sci-fi horror cheapie from producer Roger Corman and director Adam Simon… Notably better written than it is directed, Brain Dead isn’t any sort of hidden cult classic or B-movie masterpiece, but there’s something to be said for a twisted little science-fiction story that gets to the meat of the matter and doles out a generally tasty little meal.”–Scott Weinberg, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “renwad,” who called it “a strange tale about a brain specialist who’s work is being manipulated by the large company he works for, or is it ? Starring Bill Pulman and Bill Paxton, i think this is a must for the certified weird movie list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GAS-S-S-S (1970)

AKA Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bob Corff, Elaine Giftos, , Cindy Williams, , (as Tally Coppola)

PLOT: After an experimental gas kills everyone over the age of twenty five, young lovers make their way across the desert looking for a hippie Shangri-La in New Mexico.

Still from Gas-s-s-s (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: More zany than strange, Gas-s-s-s lacks bite as satire and doesn’t go far enough with its crazy to earn a place among the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Unlike monster movies, which could be churned out according to a reliable formula, comedy was always an iffy proposition for Roger Corman. When he had a dark, focused script like Little Shop of Horrors, he could produce a classic; but when the screenplay indulged in budget wackiness, as with Creature from the Haunted Sea, the results ranged from tedious to tolerable. Gas-s-s-s falls into the latter category; it’s not actually very funny, but it moves so fast and ranges so wide that it keeps your attention despite the fact that none of the individual gags land.

An appealing young cast (without the usual Corman regulars) helps. It’s not a star-making turn for either, but Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos do well enough as the central couple, he a puckish hippie and she the liberated love child. In his first major speaking role, Ben Vereen is a lot of fun as an ex-Black Panther, and future “Shirley” Cindy Williams (also in her first big part) wrings most of the film’s legitimate giggles from her character, a perpetually pregnant ingenue obsessed with 1960s rock and roll. Working with the legendary Corman, even in a bad picture, was a feather in any young actor’s cap, and Gas-s-s-s is cool credit for Talia Shire and future cult icon Bud Cort, even though both of their characters are underdeveloped and generic. Together, this sextet makes its way across a post-adult landscape where the marauders are organized as football teams (complete with rape-and-pillage pep rallies) and the Hell’s Angels have civilized themselves and taken over an abandoned country club. also rides around on a motorcycle dispensing advice and commentary. The jokes—stuff like calling out the names of cowboy actors instead of firing bullets during a shootout— are too goofy to be called absurdist; the film is almost childlike, as if the survivors are just kids pretending that the world has ended one afternoon. The result is like what might have happened if Mel Brooks had taken the script for The Bed Sitting Room, removed the dark nuclear gags, and filmed the results cheaply and quickly on an off day. I’ll resist the temptation to say Gas-s-s-s stinks; it’s a breezy wisp of a satire.

Gas-s-s-s was the last film in Roger Corman’s groovy “psychedelic” period, which began with Wild Angels and peaked with The Trip. It was also Corman’s final picture for American International Studios; he didn’t have final cut and was upset at the way the picture was edited, including the decision to cut certain scenes involving his God, who spoke with a stereotypical Jewish accent. Corman formed New World Pictures soon after and rarely directed again, serving almost exclusively as producer. Gas-s-s-s was paired on DVD in separate double feature sets with either Corman’s The Trip or the thematically similar Wild in the Streets. In October 2016 Olive released it as a standalone Blu-ray with no special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not a good pic by any means (in fact it’s a terrible plotless ramble of an idiotic film), but it’s probably worth a look for certain curious viewers because it’s so raw, audacious, bizarre and diverting.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (DVD)