Tag Archives: Comedy

“IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

Following a triumphant return in 2017, MST3K is back for another go-round on streaming service Netflix, and this time, they’ve bowed to the expectations of an audience that is keen to binge-watch. Season 12 is a tight six episodes, and the show’s already thin plot has been tweaked to explain that Jonah, Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot––and you—are going to be subjected to this latest series of world-shattering bad movie experiments in a row, force-fed in one continuous orgy of cinematic incompetence.

Still from "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet" (2018)

This doesn’t technically matter as concerns the real heart of the series: bad movies being riffed. But it is significant because the format has encouraged the producers to select movies that will speak to the greatest number of subscribers: they’re newer, they’re genre, and—unfortunately for us here in the land of weird movies—they’re pretty easy to digest. In the campaign to make the show a success, it feels like some of the inherent weirdness has been bleached out.

Mind you, they haven’t skimped on the awfulness. Our season kicks off with one of the most notorious bad movies of recent vintage: the blatant E.T. ripoff/unsubtle McDonald’s promotional cash-grab Mac and Me (1988). Unlike a lot of copycats, you can really feel the stress of trying to hit all of the original’s story beats while trying to heighten them for maximum payoff. Lonely fatherless child? Let’s put him in a wheelchair. Everyone loved E.T. dressed as a ghost? Wait till they see MAC in a bear costume leading a full-on dance number. Oh, and that other film moved truckloads of Reese’s Pieces? Think how much Coke we’re gonna sell. What makes Mac and Me weirdest are the gallons of flopsweat being generated by filmmakers who are desperate to surprise you into forgetting about the vastly superior predecessor. It’s a feature-length version of Daffy Duck’s ultimate trick.

If there is a more mercenary approach to filmmaking than the one exhibited by Mac and Me, it lives and thrives at The Asylum, and their ticket to the party is MST3K’s newest subject ever, Atlantic Rim (2013). A half-hearted riff on Pacific Rim with roughly a thousandth of that film’s special effects budget, the movie isn’t so much strange as it is sad. Like most Asylum mockbusters, it’s a con job designed to fool people who can’t quite remember all two words of the title of the movie they want to see, and as such isn’t really worthy of this show’s attention. The film goes through the motions while trying to show as little action as possible. Most of the fun to be had comes in the form of a gleefully cast-against-type Graham Greene, chewing scenery in a way he knows he’s unlikely to come by again.

Lords of the Deep (1989) is another movie hoping to piggyback on another film’s ambition (in this case, The Abyss), but hampered by what it can’t afford to show. There’s some entertaining sniping amongst the crew of an overworked underwater base, and star Priscilla Barnes’ interaction with strange ocean-dwelling creatures takes the form of trippy drug-like scenes that come as a surprise. Throw in a comically obvious villain, a body count that rises and falls, and a stilted distaff version of HAL 9000 and you get a movie that’s pleasantly odd, but not especially high on the WTF meter.

If Season 12 comes anywhere close to weirdness, it’s thanks to The Continue reading “IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

CAPSULE: YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951)

DIRECTED BY: Lou Breslow

FEATURING: , Joyce Holden, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake

PLOT: A dog is murdered for his vast fortune, then reincarnated as a human in order to solve the crime and protect his former caretaker.

Still from You Never Can Tell (1951)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Proving that high concept is not a recent phenomenon, You Never Can Tell is amiable and lighthearted, barely dipping its toe into the stranger implications of its premise. It’s perfectly pleasant.

COMMENTS: Deciding whether a movie is weird is complicated by the inescapable truth that weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. After you’ve watched enough movies with really strange storytelling and quizzical imagery, it can be easy to forget the simple charms of the unanticipated left turn. It occurred to me while watching You Never Can Tell that, while I was hardened to the oddball premise of a dog in human form, contemporary audiences must have been rendered speechless by the introduction of an animal purgatory lorded over by a lion and populated by a veritable peaceable kingdom. For most readers here, this is a minor obstacle to overcome, but even today, there are certainly audiences for whom it is a bridge too far.

The story of King the German shepherd cum Rex Shepard, Private Detective is built on a quirky idea, but once you get past the supernatural premise, you’re left with a pretty square whodunit. In fact, the villain is identified for us early on, putting a lot of pressure on our interest in King’s voyages through the human world to carry the film. That means you have to really have to be committed to the quest of Dick Powell to bring his own killer to justice, and between his laid-back performance and the script’s cavalier attitude toward its own plotting, he really doesn’t pull it off. In fact, You Never Can Tell is an interesting blip in Powell’s remarkably diverse filmography, running the gamut from the song-and-dance man of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 to a hard-bitten private eye in Murder, My Sweet and Cornered. (To say nothing of his eventual gig directing the notorious cancer vector The Conqueror). Powell’s turn as private eye pup plays his tougher image for laughs, but other than a propensity for growling and a fondness for kibble, there’s not much to the performance. It’s light, wisely underplayed, but pretty straight and narrow.

If Powell doesn’t make the most of his role, co-star Joyce Holden absolutely does and then some. As Golden Harvest, a racehorse accompanying King as the detective’s confidential secretary, she gets to have all the fun he can’t. With her on-the-nose attire, inch-thick Kentucky accent, and propensity for horse metaphor and picking winners at the track, she is exactly the freewheeling comic relief the movie wants her to be. In fact, her antics hint at a completely different movie than the one that is developing as Rex tracks down his murderer. In that storyline, his pining for his old four-legged life (at one point, he literally steps over his own grave) is matched by the bittersweet longings of his former caretaker, Ellen. The mix of wacky hijinks and earnest grief is at least as weird as any of the rules of the animal kingdom’s afterlife.

Much of the stranger aspects of the premise are left unexplored, or even deliberately sidestepped, such as the deus ex animalis that justifies the climactic romantic pairing. Is it interspecies love if they’re the same species now? But what if the romantic interest started before that? Is this the story of the love of a beast for its keeper? How many of the humans we encounter on the street are merely animals returned to Earth in an inferior form? What are the implications of procreation in this universe, what is human anyway, and what will the sex be like? You Never Can Tell definitely has more potential for weirdness than it exploits, and possibly more than it knows.

You Never Can Tell is the kind of movie you could easily see being remade every dozen years or so, just to give new comedic talents a chance to unleash their inner hounds. It’s incredibly easy to picture this as a vehicle in the late 1990s. (Likely 2019 casting: Kevin Hart as Rex, Kate McKinnon as Goldie.) So it’s notable that the only (unacknowledged) remake of the film thus far, Oh, Heavenly Dog, flipped the script by reincarnating a human (Chevy Chase) as a dog (Benji). Maybe you need an actual animal to get more into character.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weird premise makes for a funny, inventive comedy. The dog and horse may be human in form, but they’re still animals. Some hilarious scenes play off this, and I won’t give any away. It’s a one-joke movie, sure, but it’s a funny joke, and one that can last the full running time without wearing thin.” – Samuel Stoddard, At-A-Glance Film Reviews

(This movie was nominated for review by Ed. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

365. DR. CALIGARI (1989)

“This film is like the offspring of Cronenberg and Troma.”–Luther Phillips, “The Life and Times of Stephen Sayadian”

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin, Fox Harris

PLOT: Mrs. Van Houten is suffering from “nympholepsy” and erotic nightmares; her husband takes her to the Caligari Insane Asylum to be treated by the controversial granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (also named “Dr. Caligari”). A couple of her co-workers are concerned about the fact that seventeen of Caligari’s former patients have been “irreversibly warped,” and scheme to get her fired and rescue Mrs. Van Houten from her care. But Dr. Caligari refuses to accept the asylum director’s demands, and her experiments in neurological personality transfer intensify.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Stephen Sayadian, who worked as an advertiser and a photographer for “Hustler,” made a couple of hardcore pornographic films under the pseudonym “Rinse Dream.” Nightdreams (1981) and Cafe Flesh (1982) were not mere wank material, however, but highly surreal (if explicit) avant-garde experiments that were often more disturbing than erotic. Dr. Caligari was his first and only attempt to make a (relatively) mainstream feature film.
  • The financier told Sayadian he could write and film whatever he wanted, but he had to use the “Caligari” name in the title.
  • As was the case with his other cult films, Dr. Caligari was co-written with Jerry Stahl, another interesting character whose memoir “Permanent Midnight” (later made into a movie) is one of the best first-hand accounts of heroin addiction ever written.
  • Dr. Caligari briefly played as a midnight movie under the title Dr. Caligari 3000. It gained a small cult following on VHS. The film’s executive producer, Joseph F. Robertson, was a porno executive who later formed Excalibur Video, at one time the Internet’s largest adult video mail order site. He kept the exclusive distribution rights to the film with Excalibur, but his plans to release more low-budget cult films never materialized. When Robertson sold Excalibur, the rights to Dr. Caligari went with it. The new owners have shown little interest in Dr. Caligari, but legitimate new copies of the film can only be ordered from Excalibur on DVD-R. Occasional rumors of a restoration and proper release of the film have yielded no results so far.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: During an erotic hallucination, Mrs. Van Houten opens a doorway a large pulsing column of flesh with scars and wounds and orifices that ooze candy and paint. A mouth with a waggling tongue appears on the bag of meat, growing until its larger than her head; she writes against it while the giant tongue licks her face.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dalí boob crutches; giant tongue head licking; scarecrow fellatio therapy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although it plays at being a dark and disturbing trip into the twisted psychology of a nympho and her sadistic therapist, in reality Dr. Caligari is a campy flight that never takes itself the slightest bit seriously. Its overarching message seems to be “never seek psychiatric advice from a doctor who dresses in a vinyl minidress with metal cones attached to her breasts.” It’s well worth a watch if you’re looking for something sexy, surreal and silly to fill an hour and a half. “Chinchilla!”


Original trailer for Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: Stephen Sayadian’s pornography background is evident from the very first sequence of Dr. Caligari. It’s a “nympholeptic”‘s eight-minute wordless dream of taking a bubble bath and being Continue reading 365. DR. CALIGARI (1989)

ED WOOD’S TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE (1970) BLU-RAY

As we approach the New Year, it would be wise to remember the timeless words, of the great prophet: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

Isn’t it refreshing to see long-overdue appreciation of Edward D. Wood, Jr? Whoever would have guessed that his Holy Grail directorial swan song, Take it out in Trade (1970), would be  discovered, restored, and given such a gorgeous Blu-ray treatment by American Film Genre Archives (AFGA), in collaboration with Something Weird Video? May blessings eternally be bestowed upon both of them.

As this is from Wood’s later period, his budget seems to be down to about the $1.50 range. Also, like Wood’s later output, it’s a sexploitation flick, with astoundingly gratuitous nudity. Still, there’s a degree of renewed Woodian energy, which had been primarily missing since the auteur bogged down in fatigue in the late fifties. There is no mistaking that Wood here is in an advanced decline from serious alcoholism.

Trade actually has a story, such as it, and is different from his late work, too, in being an intentional comedy. Shirley (Donna Stanley) is missing, forcing her parents to hire a Private Dick named Mac McGregor (Michael Donovan O’Donnell). They must not have much of a detective budget because McGregor is totally inept. As he says, in typical Woodian narration: “Sex is where I come in. Dead or alive, sex is always in need of my services. A service to which I sincerely apply myself wholeheartedly—sometimes even in the daylight hours.” Indeed, he hardly does any detective work, being repeatedly distracted by sex.

Still from Take It out in Trade (1970)Wood himself shows up in drag, wearing… drum roll, please… a lime green angora sweater, topped by huge blue fake pearls. He looks bad—splotchy and bloated—but there’s a twinkle alive through all that self-destruction. Looking for Shirley, McGregor takes one international holiday after another, flying into wherever (cue stock plane footage), looking  for naked people (stock nudie films and new nudie footage), flying back, checking his office, getting bored, and flying to a new destination to see more naked people. Countries are represented by the barest minimum establishing shots, such as one of a continental dandy sipping wine. McGregor’s reactions are cartoonish, the jokes are groan-inducing, and the pacing is napalmed due to Wood’s padding to reach feature length. He apparently hoped against hope that it would all work, because he bragged in the trailer (included in the Blu-ray extras), “This one won’t be ignored by the box office.”  Of course, it was.

The twist is that when McGregor finally tires of bug-eyed reactions to naked people and goes to look for Shirley, it turns out that Shirley is a hooker. Cue Wood’s bizarro assessment of the sex trade. Shirley’s not in the gutter, she’s having fun, and indeed, what better way to make a living than being paid to have sex, which she enjoys?

Wood’s views of square sex are like Aunt Ida’s from Female Trouble, minus the cynicism, and with its cheapo international adventures, Take It out in Trade has an undeniable charm. With its acceptance of “deviants,” it could almost bee seen as a sequel of sorts to Glen or GlendaIt’s a shockingly progressive and nicely optimistic world view: accepting every brand of “deviants,” from trans couples to heroin addicts.

When Wood himself gets in drag, he’s enjoying the hell out of himself again, and its contagious when he does.

AFGA/Something Weird restored every minute they had access to, and although one wishes that about a half hour of footage would have remained lost, its a bona fide find and release.

The extras also include Wood’s Love Feast, which reverses the voyeurism with a Peeping Tom reaping what he sewed in a dog collar. Although both films show signs of age, the restoration job is clearly a labor of love, and who could argue with Something Weird?

363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

AKA The Meaning of Life

“The task I’ve been given seems absurd: to wait here on earth until I no longer exist.”–Ashleigh Brilliant

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam (“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” and animated sequences)

FEATURING: , , , Terry Jones, , Terry Gilliam

PLOT: An introductory short appended to the main feature describes a mutiny among older workers at an accountant firm. Then the feature begins as a tank of fish with human faces ponder the meaning of life. The movie promises to explain that mystery in a series of comic sketches beginning with birth and ending with death (and the afterlife).

Still from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Monty Python comedy troupe began its life in 1969 in the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” The show lasted three seasons, ending in 1974, after which the Pythons embarked on a series of three feature films, of which Meaning of Life was the last.
  • The Pythons refused to show distributor Universal Studios a script, instead providing a poem summarizing the film. Knowing the crew had a built-in audience, the studio approved the project.
  • Terry Gilliam’s segment, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” was originally supposed to be a sketch in the film, but it grew to such length that it was eventually included as a separate short film introducing the feature.
  • The Meaning of Life won the Grand Prix (a prize second only to the Palm d’Or) at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Well, it’s obvious what the average person will remember most about this movie: that nauseating mountain of gluttony, Mr. Creosote, vomiting gallons of minestrone onto the waitstaff at a swanky French restaurant to make room for his evening meal (including one final “waffer-thin mint”). Due to our particular biases, however, we picked a shot from the “Find the Fish” sequence instead: an elephant in a tuxedo, a man with extended arms, and a punk transvestite with water faucets attached to his/her nipples.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy Python chorus; nipple spout punk; Christmas in Heaven

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Monty Python were the pioneers of modern surreal comedy; without the groundwork they laid, there would be nothing to show on . Python is too important to weird culture to go unrecognized on a list like this, and The Meaning of Life is their weirdest big screen work, the equivalent of an R-rated “Flying Circus” episode with nudity, blasphemy, grossout humor, absurdity, and, of course, fish.


Original trailer for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

COMMENTS: Their rambunctiously silly and absurd style of comedy Continue reading 363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)