Tag Archives: Body horror

CAPSULE: HARPYA (1979) / APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BOBBY YEAH (2011)

Weirdest!(both films)

“You can do anything in animation” is a truism, a promise of unlimited potential that is frequently untapped beyond a surface-level dive into the unusual. Enough people stumble at “the animals can talk?” issue to make it unfair to expect more. However, it is also true that those filmmakers who are willing to go deeper into the realm of the possible do so with gusto. And so we arrive at a pair of short films that readily embrace the horror that ensues from making the wrong choice.

Raoul Servais’ legend in animation circles is due in large part to 1979’s Harpya. (The film won the Palme d’Or for short films at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.) The tale of a man who saves the life of a horrible-beautiful creature, only for it to methodically destroy his life, is a very simple demonstration of cause and effect.

When he intervenes to stop what looks like a cold-blooded murder, the action seems noble and moral. His decency continues when comes home with the near-victim, a giant, feathered, bare-breasted creature, but his good intentions immediately backfire. The house guest eats everything, denying the man even a morsel, and when he attempts to leave, the monster eats his legs for good measure. Even when he manages to distract the beast and escape the house, she pursues him and takes his food once more, leading him to attempt to murder her himself. It’s like a horror version of One Froggy Evening.

Servais’ technique is what lifts the movie into the rare air of our consideration. Using a method of his own invention, he shot live-action footage and projected animated settings onto the film using clear sheets. The result is something like a daguerreotype given life.

There’s a troubling undercurrent of misogyny in the film, however. In fairness to Servais, this is not explicit, but inherent in the mythological character he is invoking. (For his own part, Servais has described Harpya as a parody of a vampire tale.) If anything, it presents the danger of reading too deeply into a story; the harpy functions quite sufficiently as a movie monster, but it’s all too easy to infer a manifesto. In my research, I found at least one review that unironically celebrated the film as an attack on the shrewishness of women, which is pretty awful but speaks to the power of the piece.

Robert Morgan’s Bobby Yeah is less likely to garner sociological blowback, but only because it’s so much more obviously grotesque. Where Servais’ harpy was a lone example of a disgusting supernatural, everything in Bobby Yeah is bloody or slimy or both. That includes our ostensible protagonist, a bunny-eared, troll-faced creature who makes trouble for himself by literally pushing other people’s buttons.

The little rabbit guy is a classic protagonist who keeps stumbling from one terrible situation into another. Of course, he’s hideous, but he earns a tiny amount of sympathy by being the least hideous thing in the film. At every turn, he confronts a new bruised and twisted creature, often displaying unmistakably phallic characteristics and ready to attack the bunny guy for his most recent misdeed. (The film is replete with symbolism, particularly sexual, but it has significant impact even before you start to delve.) It’s an unrelentingly anxious 23 minutes, replete with violence, body horror, and building dread.

The eyes are often the giveaway in CGI animation, the evidence of unreality that disrupts the sense of reality. In Morgan’s production, the eyes have the opposite effect: disturbingly realistic eyes that peer out of misshapen doll faces, wall ornaments that resemble pizzas, and koosh-ball-headed serpents that stare out with unnerving authenticity. While the production design may seem to earn the title of “grossest film of all time,” it should be noted that the physical revulsion is easily matched by the psychic discomfort that lingers. Bobby Yeah isn’t just gross; it’s gross in very powerful ways.

As noted, you can do anything in animation, but what’s interesting is when a filmmaker really wants to do anything. Servais and Morgan both tap into primal fears that by turns intrigue and appall. Harpya packs a lot of horror and surrealism into its eight minutes, but it’s ultimately too slight to earn a place in the Apocrypha. Bobby Yeah, however, has the advantages of being longer and more viscerally unsettling. It’s a genuinely transcendent and transgressive work, and it’s worthy of future consideration as a candidate. Both movies, though, have a lengthy half-life in the brain, showing how a burst of animation can easily take up residence in your scared, scarred soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘…a fantastic surreal film…” – Dr. Grob’s Animation Review on “Harpya”

“…the stuff of surreal nightmares. It just goes to show that there are fertile imaginations out there creating weird and wonderful worlds for us to explore.” – Jude Felton, The Lair of Filth on “Bobby Yeah”

(“Harpya” was nominated for review by Absanktie and “Bobby Yeah” was nominated by Russ. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

29*. TITANE (2021)

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WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Recommended

“I wanted to create a new world that was the equivalent of the birth of the Titans after Uranus and Gaia mated. The sky and the Earth. That’s where it comes from. The idea was to create a new humanity that is strong because it’s monstrous — and not the other way around. Monstrosity, for me, is always positive.”–Julia Ducournau

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Agathe Rouselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After having a metal plate inserted into her skull following a car accident, young Alexia develops an empathic relationship with cars. She grows up to inhabit two careers—modeling at car shows and murder—and ends up impregnated after a one-night stand with a muscle car, and on the run from authorities who suspect her in a series of killings. Alexia assumes the identity of Adrien, the long-missing son of fire chief Vincent, and forms a relationship with him.

Still from titane (2021)

BACKGROUND:

  • In winning the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau became only the second female director to claim the festival’s top prize, and the first to win the award outright (Jane Campion won for the Piano in 1993, but shared the award with Chen Kaige/Farewell My Concubine.)
  • Titane received four Cesar nominations, including for Ducournau as director and Rouselle as Most Promising Actress. Ducournau also earned a Best Director nomination at the BAFTA Awards. (Rouselle also won “Best Actress in a Weird Movie” in the 2021 Weirdcademy Awards, where readers also selected Titane Weirdest Movie.)
  • The title is French for titanium, the material of which the plate in Alexia’s skull is composed and which seems to be part of the body of her newborn. The epigram above, from an interview with Ducournau about the goals of her film, hints at another meaning.
  • Three of Titane’s characters share names with the leads in Ducournau’s previous film, Raw.
  • The fiery vehicle with which Alexia has carnal relations is a 1984 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pregnancy can wreak havoc on a woman’s body, but the changes Alexia undergoes are especially acute. The rips in her skin revealing a metallic womb are quite unnerving, but nothing quite exemplifies Titane’s particular brand of maternal body horror as when she finds herself expressing motor oil through her breasts. Writhing in pain and oozing engine lubricant, her transformation is both disturbing and completely logical.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Seduced by a Cadillac, bluegrass twerking

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For its first half-hour, Titane is a perfectly unsettling account of a serial killer who has sex with cars. This would be game-set-match for many films hoping to earn a spot on our List, but the movie soon transforms into a meditation on gender identity, faith, and the ineffable pull of family. The sheer intensity of the characters’ pain and emotional burden is overwhelming, and Ducournau’s choice to filter these themes through outrageous story beats lends the film an operatic quality that heightens the entire tale.


Official English Language trailer for Titane

COMMENTS: For Vincent, the mere idea of a DNA test is absurd. Continue reading 29*. TITANE (2021)

CAPSULE: HATCHING (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Hanna Bergholm

FEATURING: Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä

PLOT: Tinja’s focus on her upcoming gymnastic competition is compromised after a giant egg she has been hiding from her family cracks open to reveal a monstrous bird.

COMMENTS: Tinja is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, her brother is an under-diagnosed brat of a boy, the father is the embodiment of self-destructive acquiescence, and mother has a blog about their “lovely everyday life.” Forget the giant egg for a moment and contemplate that the real horror going on in Hatching is the diminution of mental stability behind the scenes of a stereotypically “happy” Finnish family. Gauzy cinematography draws the viewer into a a fragile picture of perfection that, within the opening minutes, is shattered by the visit of an errant crow—literally, as it crashes into the precarious Living Room objets, and metaphorically, when the matriarch, determined to let nothing compromise her vision of domestic perfection, coldly snaps its neck.

With a metaphor this obvious, it’s a good thing that Hatching delivers on all the peripherals. Siiri Solalinna’s performance is right on the mark as twelve-year-old Tinja, a girl reckoning with burgeoning womanhood, a domineering mother, a speedily growing egg, and then a strange and horrific creature she adopts as her own child. This massive and grossly misproportioned bird beast has an appearance, as they say, that only a mother could love. Tinja looks past its skeletal form, its unsavory goo, irregularly-sized arms, and giant-eyed, scraggle-toothed face and sees something to love, providing it with an affection that her own mother is all too sparing with.

As with any horror film, things go from bad to worse, with Tinja powering through her trials at school, her suffocation at home, and the discovery of her mother’s infidelity with Tero, a classically handsome, manly counterpoint to her own “soft” father. In this oppressive world, it is these two father figures (Tero and actual father) who provide the only scintillas of genuine support and approval that Tinja seeks. Her mother’s burning impulse for control and projected flawlessness dominates. By the film’s third act, when Tinja is clearly on the brink of mental collapse, the most comfort her mother can muster is the reassurance, “You know the best way to get rid of stress? Winning the competition.” Tinja’s internalization of her own growing diffidence, distress, and depression manifests itself in her own “daughter,” the creature she hatched, which, despite its appearance and behavior, is the only other character who elicits sympathy. It is a primal, reactive beast: when a neighbor’s dog keeps Tinja up at night? It has a solution, proffering the headless canine to Tinja the next morning as a gift.

As her mother’s life collapses, the pressure on Tinja ratchets up further, and Tinja’s own “daughter” grows more and more into the girl’s image. The blood and goo are front and center, with these instances adroitly acting only as occasional punctuation to the mundane, spirit-crushing happenings of daily life. The film feels like an ancient dark fairy tale upon which director Hanna Bergholm shines a glaring modern spotlight, rendering it all the more unnerving.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…think of it as the weird lovechild of ‘American Beauty’ and a grotesque version of ‘E.T.,’ with the uncanny touch of Yorgos Lanthimos.”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022)

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Crimes of the Future is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

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DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: , , , Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar, Welket Bungué

PLOT: Sometime in the future, for unknown reasons, human evolution has accelerated; one man makes performance art out of growing new organs and surgically removing them before a live audience, while other groups attempt to put their own stamp on humanity’s future.

Still from Crimes of the Future (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Recycling a title from the very beginning of his career, this grisly summation of Cronenberg’s unique brand of carnal depravity feels like it’s closing a circle.

COMMENTS: The crime that opens David Cronenberg’s latest feature is a rough and bizarre reverse-Oedipal affair. It seems that the crimes of the future will have to be extreme, considering what passes for entertainment: the arts are dominated by grotesque displays of self-surgery. For unknown reasons, evolution has gone askew. The ability to feel pain has diminished in the general populace, while certain people—among them our performance artist protagonist, Saul Tesher—spontaneously grow new organs, of uncertain function. A pair of government functionaries run a novel “organ registry” out of a dusty office, but act more like obsessed fans than bureaucrats. A special police “vice” unit defends the integrity of the human body, but when “surgery is the new sex,” what rises to the level of crime?

Sickly Saul Tenser (Mortensen) wanders eerily deserted streets, wrapped from head to toe like a Bedouin prowling the Interzone. The world is almost depopulated; the only crowds are found at surgical theaters. One lonely conversation plays out in front of a beached yacht, a symbol of a world wrenched from its purposes. A surprisingly high number of expository scenes drag the pace down, but they are punctuated by moments of squirmy perfection: a man festooned with growths who sews up his eyes and mouth before performing a dance, Saul and his assistant Caprice (Seydoux) embracing in the nude while being punctured by remote-control scalpels.

Crimes calmly and coldly considers the aging Cronenberg’s obsession with carnality. Shadowy cabals, which hint at the promise of some rational purpose behind the apparent randomness of bodily decay, yield only more mysteries upon investigation. He adds a new measure self-reflexivity—how can showing people being sliced up be considered art?—along with a satire of our contemporary passion for body modification, a sad attempt to assert symbolic control over the vessels that will eventually rebel against us. But his main theme remains the fragility of the human body, its arbitrariness and lack of integrity, its susceptibility to maiming and tumors. It’s a graphic and honest vision of mortality; the strangeness of the presentation masks the inevitability of the decrepitude he prophesies. Although the story lacks the narrative drive of Cronenberg’s earlier features—rather than climaxing in the uncovering of a grand conspiracy, the ending here fades out—the atmosphere of evil, corruption, mutation and decay is as strong as ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the story is difficult to digest. It is more an amalgamation of all things David Cronenberg than something genuinely compelling with something new to say… Even if it doesn’t amount to much, it’s still weird and worthwhile and unmistakably David Cronenberg.”–Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TITANE (2021)

Titane has been upgraded to the supplemental (“apocrypha”) list of the weirdest movies of all time. Read the official entry here.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After a car accident, a young girl has a titanium plate installed in her head; she grows up to be a sexy car-show dancer obsessed with automobiles, and then things get strange.

Still from titane (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The weirdness Julia Ducournau conceived in her cannibal debut Raw is delivered in the biomechanical horror Titane.

COMMENTS: We recommend avoiding spoilers in this case; fortunately, the trailer appears as baffled by Titane‘s action as most viewers were when the final credits rolled. Titane‘s grounded-yet-bizarre story goes in at least two directions you wouldn’t expect. It’s fair to say that it thoroughly addresses body horror—of multiple flavors—but there are also episodes of black comedy and dangerous eroticism, followed by a segue into grief drama and a delusional love story; all the while, in the background, the consequences of an inexplicable and strange assignation grow to an illogical conclusion. The synopsis suggested in the pressbook—“TITANE: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility”—may be as helpful as anything.

The two main performers rock. Agathe Rousselle comes out of nowhere, starting her feature film career with a bang. She starts as a seductive lingerie dancer with a violent side, then turns androgynous and mute. Vincent Lindon has one of those weathered faces that looks like it has absorbed a lifetime of beatings, physical and emotional. He’s as obsessed with his hyper-masculine physique as professional dancer Alexia is with her feminine curves; despite his impressive steroid-aided bulk, his inability to clear a high pull-up bar is the perfect illustration of the frustrated desire to conquer corporeality.

The cinematography and editing is top-notch. From the opening car-show debauchery to a homoerotic firefighter dance party, Ducournau shows an affinity for rave-type dance scenes, relishing the disorienting beauty of being lost in motion inside a beat. Arguably, the sound design is even better; there are moments where the sound of ripping flesh makes you cringe. The musical cues are well-chosen; this is perhaps the only film where you will see someone twerk to a cover of the bluegrass classic “Wayfaring Stranger.” All in all, Titane is a collection of incompatible parts that shouldn’t work, but somehow gear up to create a gruesome but movingly human head-scratcher nonpareil. After making two excellent movies, I’m convinced Ducournau has an unqualified masterpiece inside her somewhere, just about ready to tear itself out.

The fact that a horror movie as violent and transgressive as this one could win the Palme d’Or in 2021 suggests that Cannes has come a long way since it was scandalized and outraged by ‘s similarly-themed Crash (1996). What is it with the French and objectophilia at this moment in history? After this and Jumbo (2020), both of which incorporate motor oil as a bodily fluid, it’s like Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) had a French baby, and she’s all grown up now and ready to party.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Building a nightmarish dreamscape that Davids Lynch and Cronenberg would love, Ducournau puts Alexia on an increasingly weird journey… ‘Titane’ is so self-consciously transgressive and weird, that it’s difficult to discern who it’s for, besides fetishists, freak-flag fliers and fans of auteurism at its most hermetic and solipsistic.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE CLAY (2017)

Chi o sû nendo

DIRECTED BY: Sôichi Umezawa

FEATURING: , Shinoda Ryo, Tsuda Kanji

PLOT: Students in a rural Japanese clay workshop accidentally awaken a possessed being crafted by a failed sculptor who died under mysterious circumstances.

Still from Vampire Clay (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sôichi Umezawa gets a tip of the 366 Weird Hat for his creative directorial debut, but its Cronenberg-in-clay trappings are firmly in the realm of a (somewhat) standard scary movie.

COMMENTS: “Understated” and “body-horror” rarely sit side-by-side as descriptors, but Sôichi Umezawa pulls off this fairly impressive parlor trick with aplomb in his directorial debut. Primarily known for his make-up effects (and best known to us for his work on The ABCs of Death 2), Umezawa spins us a yarn set in an unlikely place (a rural clay-sculpting academy) about an unlikely antagonist (a creepy-cute blood golem thing). The action, such as it is, fits into that Horror Genre Standard Time of under ninety minutes. The result? A fairly memorable outing that won’t burn your entire evening.

Sensei Yuri Aina (Kurosawa Asuka) runs a very small school for aspiring sculptors somewhere in not-Tokyo, Japan. When she is forced to set up shop in an abandoned painter’s studio after finding her own workshop damaged by an earthquake, she unearths a bag of dried powder while digging in the studio’s garden. Thinking nothing of it, she places it in her school. Young up-and-comer Kaori (Shinoda Ryo), fresh from a stint at art school in totally-Tokyo, Japan, is one of Aina’s pupils. Kaori’s bucket of clay is used by another student, which prompts Kaori to re-hydrate the powdery remnants that Aina had put aside. Life returns to the cursed clay at the first spritz of water, and soon the students fall prey to a malevolent, inhuman force.

All told, there are just eight characters in this melodrama about rejection, competition, and the evils of industrial waste. The back-story of the evil clay beast is sufficiently over-the-top without slipping into giggle territory; I actually found myself rather moved by the tale of the failed sculptor who literally put his lifeblood into “Kakame”, the smiling vampire golem. The attacks on the students (who comprise five of the film’s eight characters) are all clever—think Cronenberg in high school art class. I imagine creativity and patience were Umezawa’s watchwords, as the budget for this movie must have been on the very low side. In one particularly unsettling bit, Kaori’s chief rival gets enveloped by the clay monster and tries to communicate to the other students the next day from within a sculpture. (I was reminded of the creepy short, Alma.) Other bits of violence—both gruesome and creative—are found throughout. The end veers heavily into the “Apocalypse-as-Revenge” genre, in perhaps a personal attack by the director on those who may have doubted his talents in the past.

Now that Sôichi Umezawa has proven he can maintain a feature-length narrative as well as scare his audience, I’m hopeful he’ll move on to some more challenging material. Vampire Clay takes you on a quick journey into one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the Gotta-Have-Blood monster genre while laying the ground-work for what will hopefully be a fuller career in weirdo-creepy motion pictures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The notion of Vampire Clay is a fun thought experiment, and Umezawa seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications…  the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.”–Scott Tobias, Variety

CAPSULE: EVOLUTION (2015)

Also see ‘s “Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantasia Fest 2015” (where Evolution scored an honorable mention).

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier

PLOT: A boy grows up on a strange island where all the adults are female and all the children are males; he is told he is sick and is sent to a hospital where he bonds with one of the nurses.

Still from Evolution (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Evolution is a very good, very weird film that won’t get a shot at making the List of the weirdest films of all time for one simple, rather technical reason: it’s thematically similar to, and perhaps slightly inferior to, a previous movie by the same director. Evolution and Innocence are linked, yin-yang movies; you might consider them for a single spot on the List, 1a and 1b.

COMMENTS: Filmed on the rocky beaches of the Canary Islands (standing in for a settlement in a dystopic future or some fairy tale netherworld), Evolution is a stunningly beautiful film. The underwater photography in the opening, capped with a shot from the sea floor of a boy’s lithe body floating in the water framed by a wavery halo of sun, is a skin diver’s dream of paradise. The film knows it’s beautiful, too, and that may be why it takes so much time getting to where it’s going: it’s letting you soak in the sights.

Early in the story, playmates stage a funeral for a dead lobster whose corpse, seen belly-up, looks strikingly vaginal; our boy hero touches it, just to show that he isn’t afraid. Of death, or sex? Is there much difference here? He lives in a village where each “mother” has exactly one boy child in her care. While the boys sleep, the women—all pale and slim, with albino eyebrows—gather at night on the beach for secret rites, performing frightening acts that boys (and audiences) can’t quite wrap their heads around (though might approve, in a horny mood). Later, the boy is diagnosed as “sick”—as are all the boys when they reach the cusp of puberty—and transferred to a hospital, where he, along with the others, undergo a series of operations. He also strikes up an (implicitly frowned-upon) friendship with one of the nurses, who is impressed by his drawing abilities.

Evolution is slow-paced, but comes in at a brief 80 minutes—although even so, the overly long silences make it feel stretched out. Besides the dreadful atmosphere, it does have some genuine body horror frights, including creepy fetuses. Like Innocence, it ends with a return to the “real world.” The limbo Hadzihalilovic explores in these companion films is pre-pubescent gender, the weirdness of being a male or a female inhabiting a body that’s not yet equipped to carry out its biological role. A very weird situation, when you think about it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird stingless jellyfish of a film. It drifts through an amphibious world of its own, somewhere between nightmare and reverie: intriguing, but never quite arriving at that pure jab of fear or eroticism or body horror that it appears to be swimming towards.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)