Tag Archives: Bill Pullman

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.)

133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

Recommended

“In my mind, it’s so much fun to have something that has clues and is mysterious — something that is understood intuitively rather than just being spoonfed to you. That’s the beauty of cinema, and it’s hardly ever even tried. These days, most films are pretty easily understood, and so people’s minds stop working.”–David Lynch

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia

PLOT: Fred is a free jazz saxophonist who finds that mysterious videotapes are being dropped off on his doorstep. After an encounter with a mysterious pale man at a party, he blacks out finds himself accused of the murder of his wife. In prison Fred begins having headaches, and then one day he disappears and a completely different man—a young mechanic—is discovered in his death row cell.

Still from Lost Highway (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay to Lost Highway was co-written by Barry Gifford, who also wrote the novel “Wild at Heart” that Lynch adapted into a film in 1990.
  • Lost Highway received two “thumbs down” ratings from Siskel & Ebert’s “At the Movies” syndicated movie review program. Lynch insisted the movie poster be rewritten to highlight the critics’ dual pans, describing the bad ratings as “two good reasons to go and see Lost Highway.”
  • The film cost about 15 million dollars to make but grossed less than 4 million at the U.S. box office.
  • Lost Highway boasts a number of cameo roles, including rockers Henry Rollins as a guard and Marilyn Manson as a porn actor,  mainstay  in a voiceover, and Richard Prior as one of Pete’s co-workers.
  • This film marks the last onscreen appearance of , who appeared in all of Lynch’s films until his death in 1996.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Robert Blake’s “Mystery Man,” an eyebrow-free, perpetually grinning pasty-faced ghoul who likes to crash L.A. cocktail parties and whose idea of small talk is to call himself on his cell phone to deliver obscure metaphysical portents of doom.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine you’re on a desert highway. It’s long past midnight and you can ‘t see anything but the onrushing yellow traffic lines a few feet in front of the car’s headlights.  is crooning “funny how secrets travel” from the stereo. David Lynch is at the wheel, he’s jittery from drinking too much coffee, and neither you nor he has no idea where you’re going. Strap yourself in. It’s going to be a wild ride.


Original trailer for Lost Highway

COMMENTS: Made five years after the divisive mixed blessing that was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway marks the beginning of the Continue reading 133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

CAPSULE: PEACOCK (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lander

FEATURING: Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman

PLOT: After a train accident destroys his privacy, a mentally ill bank employee leads

a double life, playing himself and his own wife, as he navigates his relationship with a poor single mother and his own worsening psychological state.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Peacock‘s gender-bending premise suggests all kinds of weird possibilities, the film’s execution doesn’t capitalize on any of them, and the final product is a muddled, small-town drama with only the occasional hint of slight weirdness.

COMMENTS: Set in the fictional Nebraska town that gives it its name, Peacock begins with an average day in the life of its disturbed protagonist, John Skillpa (Murphy), as he eats the breakfast prepared for him by his wife Emma. The twist, however, is that John is Emma, and that he’s built an illusion of idyllic family life within the house he inherited from his abusive mother. The first few wordless minutes set this up promisingly, as Murphy capably portrays both halves of this quiet household going about their daily business.

Then a train caboose flies off its tracks, knocking Emma unconscious while she’s hanging laundry; instantly, the Skillpas become the talk of the town, and a rallying point for local politicians. This could be the start of a tense psychodrama… but instead, it soon fizzles out and degenerates into half-baked histrionics. Although Murphy is commendable in his dual roles, switching back and forth between the ultra-jittery John and demure Emma with a convincing change of personality, his performance can’t overcome the often shaky writing. This worsens considerably toward the end, as a series of out-of-left-field twists and turns torpedo the film’s already questionable logic.

The other actors also fare poorly. Most unfortunate of all is Ellen Page, brutally miscast as a hash-slinger and sometime prostitute who also happens to be raising John’s child. Although Page has found phenomenal success playing precocious teenagers in movies like Hard Candy and Juno, she sounds hopelessly out of place as the put-upon, provincial Maggie. Susan Sarandon, as the mayor of Peacock’s feminist wife, brings some well-needed warmth and humor to the film, but she too is wasted as the film quickly stops using her interactions with Emma to explore gender roles, and becomes a dour, poorly paced thriller instead—one without any real suspense or fear of discovery.

Outside of Murphy’s oddball, over-the-top performance, Peacock is disappointingly conventional and just as mixed-up as its protagonist. Sometimes it acts like a satire of wholesome small-town values, as its supporting cast members all speak in the same exaggeratedly folksy dialect and share the same dull conversation topics. But by the end, it’s clear that Peacock is just an anemic rehash of Psycho‘s less plausible parts, with plot holes deep enough to bury a body. First-time director Lander, who also co-wrote, drops every potentially interesting angle by the wayside, and in so doing squanders a plum cast. If you want to see Cillian Murphy in drag, you should probably just watch Neil Jordan‘s Breakfast on Pluto instead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lander’s thriller wannabe is a confusing jumble of badly developed ideas which happen to be acted out by a talented group of actors who are squandered away in a film that is so concerned with creating a mystery that it overlooks the fact that it also needs to be a good movie. A sad waste of a great cast.”–Marina Antunes, Quiet Earth

CAPSULE: SURVEILLANCE (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Jennifer Lynch

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Julia Ormand, Michael Ironside

PLOT: Two FBI agents/weirdos harass criminals and innocents alike as they search for a couple of murderers to whom they might have ties.

Still from Surveillance (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Think CSI or NCIS meets Natural Born Killers. The weird quotient is totally crushed by the earthbound whodunnit quotient. It shows promise early on, and while the subtleties of the genre don’t escape my grasp, I don’t think that, in a truly weird movie, I should be asking “whodunit?,” but rather, “what the hell’s going to happen next?”

COMMENTS: Surveillance is the sophomore directorial effort by possibly-nepotistic director Jennifer Lynch, her first being the acclaimed/notorious Boxing Helena. This little nugget of info was what really interested me about seeing Surveillance, and I was hoping, no, begging for it to be just as weird as Helena without, hopefully, the punch-in-the-dignity twist ending.

What I got, unfortunately, was a moderate amount of sadism and unusual behavior, but a decidedly pedestrian tone. It’s a pretty good film, but it’s simply not weird enough to keep me thinking about it or talking about it after I’ve seen it. The leads, and Julia Ormand, are good, and I like the dangerous chemistry between them, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before verbatim in other movies. The stand-out here is the vicious Michael Ironside, who plays the torturous Captain Jennings, a psychotic cop with a penchant for roughing up people and generally acting schizophrenic. I love his character, and I love his particular intensity that recalls his heyday, circa Scanners.

The script, also by Lynch, is devious, with plenty of funky, uneven dialog that recalls, in small doses, her father‘s wording from Wild at Heart (“Those are dummies, dummy!”). Her direction isn’t bad, either, although far from inspired. She has a good time playing with different filters and tones here, but it’s pretty standard fare. Surveillance is solid feature that I actually enjoyed a bit, and would recommend as a definite rental possibility, but don’t come looking for something genuinely freaky here, because this film can’t sustain real-deal strange in large doses. Jennifer Lynch somehow manages to makes a better film than her debut, but at the expense of creating anything exceptional.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Jennifer Lynch tried way too hard to follow in the deep blue surrealist footsteps of her father, David Lynch… But she finds her own voice in Surveillance, a grubby, disturbing serial-killer mystery, a kind of blood-simple Rashomon.”-Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Wes Craven

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae

PLOT: An anthropologist travels to Haiti in search of the legendary “zombie drug” and gets mixed up in voodoo and third world politics.

serpent_and_the_rainbow

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are three or four vivid hallucination/dream sequences in The Serpent and the Rainbow that are unique visual treats.  (The most unusual and striking vision is a disembodied zombie hand crawling into a bowl of soup).  Craven, however, uses only the canonical scare iconography—corpses and skulls, blood, snakes and spiders—which makes the scenes add up to standard, if well executed, nightmare sequences.  Coupled with an ordinary horror movie plot (although it’s disguised well for the first two-thirds of the film), Serpent is a film with some fantastic scenes, but not weird one.

COMMENTSSerpent is an above-average horror outing, although its ultimately a mild disappointment because the black magic premise has so much unrealized potential.  The voodoo milieu the civilized doctor encounters in Haiti is memorable and spooky; the setting is also unique in that it mixes witchcraft with politics by having the main villain be both a powerful warlock and an officer of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s secret police.  In the end, unfortunately, Craven can’t figure out how to keep the momentum rolling into a proper climax to its interesting premise.  We end up with a formula horror finale where Zakes Mokae’s brilliantly sadistic Dargent Peytraud transforms into a poor man’s Freddy Kruger.  The eye-rolling climax comes complete with false deaths, catch phrases, an ironic comeuppance, and other silliness. 

The movie was adapted from a memoir of the same name by real-life Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who actually went to Haiti to investigate the real zombie drug.  To make this serious scientific book into a horror movie seems a bit like adapting “A Brief History of Time” as a space opera.  Davis called the film “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history”; it’s not nearly that bad (in fact, it’s pretty good), but his frustration is understandable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things speed towards an ‘Omen’ finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.” – Desson Howe, Washington Post