Tag Archives: Desert

255. RUBIN & ED (1991)

“People try to make me sound a lot… weird… and just, strong, you know, I’m strong!”–Crispin Glover on “Late Night with David Letterman”

“Talk about el weirdo.”–Ed, on Rubin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Howard Hessman, , , Michael Greene

PLOT: Ed is a recently-separated loser who joins “the Organization,” a cult-like real estate pyramid scheme. Rubin is a shut-in nerd whose mother takes away his boom box and refuses to return it until he makes a single  friend. When Ed tries to recruit Rubin to attend an Organization seminar, Rubin agrees to go, on the condition that Ed helps him find a place to bury his dead pet cat.

Still from Rubin and Ed (1991)


BACKGROUND:

  • Rubin & Ed was Utah-based director Trent Harris’ first feature film after making the three documentary/narrative hybrid shorts known as “The Beaver Trilogy” (the first installment is a documentary featuring an oddball kid who performs in drag as Olivia Newton-John, while the next two recreate the first using actors and Crispin Glover, respectively).
  • Glover created Rubin Farr for another role that never materialized. He convinced Harris, who was looking for a project for his feature film debut, to write a script around the character.
  • In 1987, three years before Rubin & Ed began filming, a stuttering, awkward Crispin Glover appeared in character as Rubin on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Letterman thought Glover was there to promote River’s Edge, and walked off his own set when Glover almost kicked him in the head while wearing Rubin’s giant platform shoes. The segment only lasted a little over four minutes. Many Americans who saw it live assumed Glover was wasted on psychedelic drugs.
  • Although it had a reasonable degree of star power and was produced by major independent Working Title Films (who released the Palme d’Or winning Barton Fink the same year), Rubin & Ed initially received terrible reviews made a mere $15,000 in its original theatrical run. The film flopped so badly that the studio pulled funding for another Trent Harris project that had already been greenlit. Rubin & Ed later found a small cult following on VHS.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Rubin’s happy hallucination, which features his previously-dead cat alive and waterskiing while its owner relaxes in a floating inner-tube wearing shoes with two foot heels, on which the bikini babe motoring the speedboat compliments him.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Weaponized platform shoes; waterskiing cat; insole slurping

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though structured as a quirky comedy, not too different from the usual outing of the period, Rubin and Ed has a gaggle of weird points in its favor, including a hallucination scene with a water skiing cat and a lunatic Crispin Glover playing something very near the Crispin Glover-iest character ever written. Its sense of humor is so eccentric that it’s been forced off-road to become strictly a cult curiosity.


Trailer for Rubin & Ed

COMMENTS: “It’s going to get weird now, isn’t it?,” frets Ed, after Continue reading 255. RUBIN & ED (1991)

LIST CANDIDATE: FANDO Y LIS (1968)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky

FEATURING: Sergio Kleiner, Diana Mariscal

PLOT: Fando carts and carries his paralyzed lover Lis across a ravaged landscape searching for the legendary city Tar.

Still from Fando y Lis (1968)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If you’ve ever seen a Jodorowsky movie before, you know what to expect. Fando y Lis is a parade of fantastical, shocking imagery, including snakes that penetrate a baby doll and a man who begs for blood (he extracts a donation with a syringe and drinks it from a brandy snifter). That said, Fando & Lis is one of the least of Jodorwosky’s works, an early curiosity that is thoroughly weird, but not strongly conceived enough to make the List on the first ballot. (Plus, Jodo’s so well-represented here already we don’t feel at all bad about the possibility of leaving one movie off).

COMMENTS: Fando y Lis begins with a woman eating flowers while a siren wails. Later we will learn she is the paraplegic Lis, whose lover Fando will cart her across a bizarre post-apocalyptic landscape searching for the mystical city of Tar. Along the way they encounter a man playing a burning piano, mud zombies, a transvestite parade, and a gang of female bowlers led by a dominatrix, among other absurdities. There will also be flashbacks to both Fando and Lis’ childhoods, and unrelated fantasy sequences of the actors goofing around (posing in a graveyard, and painting their characters’ names on each other). And there’s quite a few more transgressions, both beautiful and clumsy, to be found in this rambling, overstuffed avant-garde experiment. Although Jodorowsky comes from an older bohemian tradition, at times Fando y Lis plays like something made by Mexican hippies, improvising scenes with random props in between hashish tokes.

The “spiritual journey” structure makes for an episodic film, but the ideas aren’t as stunningly realized or obsessively detailed as The Holy Mountain. Here, Jodorowsky has found, but not perfected, his unique voice: it’s as if he’s working with individual sentences, rather than complete paragraphs. It would have helped the movie feel more coherent and unified if the relationship between Fando and Lis was better done, but their dynamic is unpleasant. They unconvincingly profess eternal love for each other, but Fando is much better at conveying his irritation and annoyance at having to carry Lis everywhere, while her character is reduced to desperate, pathetic whining for most of the film.

In 1962 Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal and , feeling that Andre Breton and the old guard Surrealists had lost their edge and were no longer extreme enough in their embrace of absurdity, founded the Panic movement, which was mostly an experimental theater group. Fando & Lis was originally a play from this school, written by Arrabal and staged by Jodorowsky. This movie adaptation is not intended to be faithful; Jodorowsky instead described it as based on his memories of the play. When Fando y Lis premiered at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968 it caused a riot (presumably due to its abundant nudity and mildly sacrilegious content) and was subsequently banned in Mexico. The film basically disappeared for years. Discovering Jodorowsky in the early 90s, when his films were only available in bootleg VHS versions, I was unaware that he had made a movie before El Topo; Fando wasn’t even a filmography entry. It wasn’t until 2003 that a DVD of this early work suddenly popped up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… pothead vaudeville all the way… A tumultuous cause celebre at festivals, it paved the way for the director’s rise from small-time poseur to big-time poseur with El Topo a few years later.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

(This movie was nominated for review by “Zelenc” who called it a “must see film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

“A cult of weird, horrible people who gather beautiful women only to deface them with a burning hand!”–original poster tagline for Manos, the Hands of Fate

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Harold P. Warren, John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree

PLOT: After making a wrong turn on a family vacation, Mike and Maggie and their daughter Debbie find themselves lost in the Texas desert. As night falls they discover a lodge and its mysterious caretaker Torgo, who reluctantly agrees to let the family stay the night. As the night wears on the Master and his wives awake, while Torgo develops an obsession with Maggie.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Hal Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, had a yen to become an actor, and met and befriended screenwriter Stirling Silliphant when the latter was in El Paso scouting locations for the television series “Route 66.” Warren made a bet with Silliphant that he could make his own horror movie. He scribbled out the initial outline to Manos on a napkin at a coffee shop.
  • Manos was filmed with a hand-wound 16mm camera that could only shoot 32 seconds of footage at a time. There was no live sound and all dialogue was later dubbed in by the principal male actors (Warren, Reynolds and Neyman) and one uncredited actress voicing all the female roles.
  • John Reynolds, who played Torgo, was a heavy drug user who was often high on LSD on set. He committed suicide months after shooting concluded, before Manos‘ debut.
  • Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, almost never screened on television, only gaining notoriety after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993. (Manos became one of the show’s most popular episodes).
  • For most of its history Manos was available only in scratchy second generation prints with visible defects; many fans believe that the murky visuals add to the film’s outsider appeal. In 2001, cameraman Benjamin Solovey found a pristine work print of the movie  and crowdfunded a digital restoration of the movie, which he released on Blu-ray (via Synapse films).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a brief moment when all of Manos‘ bizarre characters share the frame at the same time. Arms outstretched, as always, to display the scarlet fingers lining the inside of his coal-black cloak, the Master points to a shivering Torgo, while two of his nightgown-clad wives pirouette towards him and drag him onto the stone altar, his massive knees pointing towards the nighttime sky. In her review of the film’s opening night, the local El Paso film critic refers to this as the scene where Torgo is “massaged to death.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Torgo’s knees; wives’ nightgown brawl; who the heck is ‘Manos’?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing, strange dubbing, and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny west Texas wasteland that’s similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.


Clip from Manos: the Hands of Fate

COMMENTS: Manos: the Hands of Fate demonstrates an important Continue reading 223. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENTERTAINMENT (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Alverson

FEATURING: Gregg Turkington

PLOT: A low-rent insult comedian who performs in a tux with a grotesque combover plays unappreciative dive bars throughout the Southwest on an increasingly surreal tour.

Still from Entertainment (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: After another failed gig, the Comedian’s friend, a business consultant, suggests that the performer consider making his act “a little less weird.” We disagree.

COMMENTS: I appreciate a bad joke. It’s hard to write a bit that has the shape of a joke, complete with a setup and a punchline, but then fails to land properly—not something completely random, but a crack that’s just barely off, a jibe that an alien or madman might think is funny. Comedy interruptus: a joke that perversely strangles its own payoff. (Judd Nelson’s painful, sweaty monologues in The Dark Backward were built around a similar premise, although The American Astronaut‘s rambling “Hertz doughnut” bit is the most successful iteration of the trope I can think of). The nameless comedian of Entertainment deals exclusively is such jokes: he starts off with premises like “Why don’t rapists eat at TGI Fridays?” There is no possible successful punchline to that set-up; the joke, rather, is that any comedian would have such poor taste that he would even try out such a line.

The meta gets piled high in Entertainment. The Comedian’s routine, delivered from under a carefully styled oily combover, might have gone over with a crowd of irony-digging college hipsters, but he’s trying it out in working class gin joints. “I’ve traveled a long distance carrying these jokes in order to bring them here and thrust them into your fool faces,” he complains on stage, after a poke at prop comic Carrot Top earns him only a few token titters. At a country club gig, he improvises a bit where he picks up a trophy and pretends to shoot the audience, then makes fart noises for a couple of minutes before dropping the mike and walking off stage. “We’re not paying for that,” is the icy, but reasonable, response of the lady who booked him. There’s something horrifyingly Sisyphean in the idea of a comic who’s compelled to take the stage and bomb night after night in front of a disdainful crowd of miserabilist drunks.

The rest of the tour, the blank-faced Comedian stays in motel rooms or crashes on couches. He spends his free time alone taking in the desert sights (a car mysteriously upended in the middle of nowhere seems like the perfect metaphor for his own inexplicable career) or leaving pathetically mundane, never-answered messages on his estranged daughter’s phone. Between the melancholy vignettes and embarrassing failed comedy routines are plenty of surreal sights, particularly in the film’s last half hour. The tour increasingly takes its toll on the Comedian’s mental state, as events grow more and more fragmented and panicky towards the end. Public restrooms are particularly anxious locales; one of the film’s best scenes involves an ambiguous meeting with a nervous hanging out at an isolated rest stop, while another bathroom produces an even more scarring vision. The Comedian hangs out with a crowd who look like the Southwestern cousins of the folks from Gummo (I kept expecting a chair-bashing session to break out), leading to more odd moments. A hallucinatory guest spot on a Mexican telenovela rounds out the strangeness. Throughout, the soundtrack is omnipresent and intense, with a mix of anxious ambient drones and popular music numbers that range from the ethereal to the ironic. The overall effect is like discovering Andy Kaufman’s old Tony Clifton character has a tragic backstory and suffers from chronic depression, then watching his mental breakdown from the inside. The film is a bleak vision of complete artistic and personal frustration, yet it rings hellishly true.

Though the character is never named, star Gregg Turkington uses the same gimmick (minus the existential despair) when he performs as “Neil Hamburger” (“America’s Funnyman”).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somewhere on the axis where David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and Joey Bishop intersect… Weirdly compelling if student-y and unfocused…”–Kyle Smith, New York Post (contemporaneous)

BUNUEL’S SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms”-Luis Buñuel.

Simon of the Desert (1965) was Buñuel’s final Mexican film before moving to France. His Mexican period is often considered a repository of “anti-religious” films, although a more apt description might be “anti-ecclesiastical.”  This 45-minute pilgrimage is an incomplete work (due to haphazard funding), but even in its truncated state, it is a shockingly substantial work.

The ascetic fifteenth century Saint Simon Stylites () has spent his life atop a pillar in order to get closer to God. A wealthy patron has an even larger pillar built for the holy man and so, after six years, six months, and six days, Simon, reluctantly, comes down from atop his ivory tower, albeit briefly, to “move up” in the world. Detached irony abounds. As in Nazarin, Buñuel presents a religious figure as a fool, but a stubbornly determined fool to be identified with and admired, with detachment.

Still from Simon of the Desert (1965)Kurt Vonnegut once wrote an amusing observation about Christ and the Lazarus story. In his take on the narrative, Vonnegut imagined that, Lazarus’ resurrection, it was the recent corpse, not Christ, who became the celebrity with the crowd. Leave it for the masses to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. But, what Vonnegut was expressing was the inevitable chasm between prophet and audience.

Buñuel also emphasizes contrasts. Simon’s audience does not desire holiness. They crave tinseled parody, only because they do not know the difference. A handless man is resorted and immediately begins using his hand to slap an inquisitive child. Bunuel’s integrity and convictions astutely critique, not the faith itself, but the contemporary adherents to the faith, who, with their short attention spans, pedestrian tastes, poverties of intelligence and of aesthetics, are rendered consumers of spectacle as sacrament. Bunuel’s shift from the religious to the bourgeoisie was a natural development, seen flowering here.

The devil is, naturally, a woman, and Silvia Pinal agreeably fleshes her out.  She takes turns as a Catholic school girl, an androgynous messiah who performs a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction for the unfazed celibate, and finally as a mini-skirted Peter Pan, whisking Saint Wendy away from his Tower of Babel to a modern discotheque.

As with all of late Bunuel, he is no mere repeater of old narratives here. As St. Luis (and only a seasoned saint could be this irreverent), he spins a new parable, one that is organically textured and startling in its improvised finale. Bunuel was no hypocrite, and the unexpected loss of cash flow inspired a quixotic bleakness and an unequaled sense of purpose.

LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Harold P. Warren

FEATURING: John Reynolds, Tom Neyman, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren

PLOT:  Lost in the desert, a vacationing family seeks lodging from Torgo, who takes care of the place while the Master is away.

Still from Manos, the Hands of Fate (1966)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With The Horror of Spider Island and The Beast of Yucca Flats already certified weird, it’s hard to argue that any movie could be ruled off the List solely because it was “too bad.”  But as painful as those movies can be to watch, the dreadfully dull and incompetent Manos is another kettle of stinky fish entirely.  Spider Island and Yucca Flats developed slight cult followings on their own bizarre merits, but for decades 1966’s Manos had been completely resigned to the grindhouse dustbin, only gaining notice after being featured on the bad movie-mocking cult TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1993.  Like most misguided amateur efforts, Manos notches a few weird points from anti-naturalistic acting, incoherent editing and negligent continuity.  In the case of Hal Warren’s sole feature, the staggering ineptitude magnifies the movie’s strange little bumps until they become looming mountains; the story takes place in some uncanny desert that’s somewhat similar to our own world, but permeated by a dreamlike offness.  The question is, is that weird undercurrent enough to overcome Manos‘ dead air?

COMMENTS:  Abraham pleaded with God to save the city of Sodom from eradication via brimstone, if he could find only a few good men inside the city limits; similarly, I won’t condemn Manos as a completely worthless endeavor if I can ferret out just a few good things about it.  A brief recital of Manos‘ cinematic sins, however, makes the judgment look dire for this microbudget brainchild of a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas. The issues begin with the film stock itself: Manos was shot with a hand-wound 16 mm camera that could only capture thirty seconds of footage at a time.  The camera was probably intended to be used by families making silent vacation films, and the results look exactly like home movies from the 1960s, complete with barely adequate, dull coloration and hazy definition.  Since the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)

CAPSULE: DUNE (1984) [BLU-RAY]

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Kenneth McMillan, , Sean Young,

PLOT: As simply as I can put it: set in the year 10,191, inhabitants of three planets attempt to gain control of the “spice” Melange.  The substance extends life and allows space travel.  Whoever controls the spice controls the universe.  The planet Caladan, home of the House Atreides, is the main threat to the current emperor of the universe.  Duke Atreides son, Paul, appears to be the “chosen one” due to his special gifts of prophetic visions and skillfulness as a soldier.  Paul foresees the emperor’s plan to destroy the Artreides clan and sets out to take control of the spice and defeat their enemies.

Still from Dune (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Dune is too confusing, an altogether jumbled mess, to give it any consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made.  There are too many characters, words, names and ideas that occupy the screen.  Overt weirdness does flit about many times, but is marred by cheap-looking special effects and poor acting.  Disappointing, considering who was at the helm of the picture.

COMMENTS: First off, being a new contributor, I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to cover three masters in the realm of weird cinema; Roeg, Cronenberg, and now David Lynch. Truth be told, Lynch is probably the greatest director in the pantheon of weird movies.  That said, this is the worst film David Lynch ever committed to celluloid.  I don’t think he would mind my saying so, as he too has publicly announced his hatred towards this film.  He refuses to talk about it in writings or interviews.  A production debacle, Lynch feuded bitterly with Dino de Laurentis to retain his artistic vision against the producer ‘s extravagance.  The film looks slapdash at times.  This problem likely stems from the complex source material: Frank Herbert’s 1965 cult sci-fi novel of the same name.  Lynch claimed  never to have read the book pre-production and to personally dislike the sci-fi genre.  For unclear reasons, he actually turned down the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi to do this film.  I imagine Ewoks would have become much more menacing under the Lynchian lens.

Lynch came to direct only after several other directors bowed out due to differences and strife on the set.  One of the directors previously associated with the film was none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky, who planned on taking the film to new heights… a 14-hour epic!  Yeah, that didn’t fly.  What we are left with is a 137 minute hodgepodge of sci-fi jargon and mediocre direction.  Apparently different cuts exist; a 190 minute version has been aired in two parts for television.  The added material only caused more uproar with the legions of “Dune” fans, who thought the additional scenes and extended narration further stifled the already confusing flow of the theatrical cut.  Lynch has refused to release a director-approved cut, and demanded the pseudonym Jonas Booth replace his name on the extended television version.

There is way too much happening in this movie…all the time!  The multitude of characters, all with hard to pronounce names, come and go and never really make an impression.  The viewer is left wondering, “who is that?”, “are they important?,” and “what do they want?”  Ultimately, the answer to the last question is that they all want that damn spice.  Spice is cultivated on the planet Arrakis, or Dune, a desolate sand-covered planet; the only place where one can attain spice and thus total domination over the universe.  What protects the spice from any regular Joe-Schmoe getting at it?  Enormous man-eating worms, that’s what.  At least Lynch got to expand on his worm fixation.

I’ll refrain from putting in text the many characters that inhabit the different planets.  I will say the cast is fairly impressive and many went on to bigger and better roles.  The recognizable faces are: Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Sean Young, Virginia Madsen, and Eraserhead‘s own Henry, Jack Nance (almost unrecognizable without that pompadour).  The most impressive over-the-top performance comes from Kenneth McMillan as Baron Vladimir Harkkonen (see, I told you about the names).  He gets the chance to unspool some great weirdness in his role.  The disgusting pus-and-blood filled boils that crater his face; his ability to inflate his suit and hover around like a lumpy balloon; his crazed, madman line deliveries: he get props in the weird department.  He plays up his vileness quite nicely to cement his baddie status.

I don’t think Dune is complete garbage.  I’ve seen much worse.  The elaborate sets and ornate costumes are most impressive.  The Blu-ray picture quality is probably the best you’re ever going to get (is this the first Blu-ray film reviewed on this site?!?  Blu-ray is beautiful, and hopefully an expansion of weird titles is to come).  The colors are crisp and flaws are minimal.  Many of the set designs were created by the legendary H.R. Geiger of Alien fame (although he eventually dropped out of the production, many of his creations were still used).  Speaking of Alien, I saw many subtle similarities to other classic sci-fi films, with Star Wars leading the pack.  “May the force be with you” is changed to “may the hand of God be with you.”  Young Paul (MacLachlan) undergoes a training sequence very similar to the exercise blindfolded Luke Skywalker practiced on the Millennium Falcon; instead of a lightsaber, Paul uses some sort of laser gun to blast tips off harpoon spears that randomly thrust out of a fight simulator.

The action sequences and special effects are what bog this movie down to the depths of an over-blown ridiculous flop.  For as much money as this thing cost, it should have looked a whole lot better, even by 1984 standards.  The first action occurs when Paul trains in a battle simulation.  There’s a knife fight, but a force field shields the  combatants: it’s a box/cube that engulfs the person into something that looks straight out of Intellivision video games from three years earlier.  The final battle depicts heroic Paul in knife-combat with evil Harkkonen lackey Feyd, played by an insignificant Sting (looking like Sex Pistols-era John Lydon).  The fight is sloppily choreographed and lame.  Overall, a perfect descriptive term for this film… lame.

To get a final understanding of just how corny this movie can get, I’ll offer up three more tidbits in list form:

  1. A dog (a pug) features in several scenes.  Paul lovingly strokes its fur aboard a spacecraft.  His father, the Duke, carries it around like an ornament.  Most hilarious, though, is the scene in which Patrick Stewart’s character charges and screams in full-blown battle mode while cradling the mongrel in his arms.  Where’s a wookie when you need one?
  2. The guns that are controlled by screams and a certain pitch of voice.  A trigger needn’t be pulled.  Just yell.
  3. The potential effectiveness of the giant worms is completely squelched when Paul and his comrades mount, harness, and ride them into battle like horses.

I’m sorry David, your film is lame.  You know it.  I know it.  Still, you managed to get some devout followers.  I just can’t figure out why.

The Blu-Ray additional features include very rough deleted scenes that add nothing of significance.  Special features document the making of Dune and its sometimes cringe-worthy special effects.  There are also segments on the various models, miniatures, and costume designs, which I find to be the only saving grace of the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a brilliant mistake, misguided from the start but still aesthetically satisfying… Those who give it a chance…  will be rewarded with something surreal and strangely evocative…”–Bill Gibron, PopMatters (Blu-ray)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Lance Mungia

FEATURING: Jeffrey Falcon

PLOT: In an alternate post-apocalyptic past, Elvis has died, and samurai musician Buddy races to Lost Vegas to make his claim the King’s throne—along with every other rock-and-roll outlaw prowling the wasteland.

Still from Six-String Samurai (1998)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: From the plot synopsis alone it should be clear that Six-String Samurai‘s weirdness isn’t in doubt.  Although it has an excellent chance to make the List down the line, something in me resists putting it on after the first ballot.  The mix of action and absurdity in Six-String Samurai is tempting, like a dish at a fancy restaurant that sounds mouth-watering on the menu; but when you order it you discover that, although the individual ingredients are of the highest quality, the flavors don’t quite blend properly. It’s satisfying and too good to send back, but you had hoped for much more.

COMMENTS: This is my second review of Six-String Samurai; a younger me reviewed the film when it first came out, in 1998.  With time, wisdom, and more weird movies under my belt, has my assessment of changed since then?  I reprint that review below, with my contemporary observations to follow.

“The mainstream Las Vegas Review-Journal gives it one star.  The alternative free weekly City Life gives it four stars (out of five).  My interest is piqued; the kid in me wants City Life to win out, but my internal cynic is betting heavily on the Review-Journal.  Reading the plot synopsis—after nuclear war in 1957, Elvis, King of the City of Lost Vegas, has just died, and every guitar-picking, sword-wielding outlaw of the Wastelands, including Buddy Holly and Death himself, is heading to Vegas to claim the throne—it’s easy to guess that this will be a polarizing film.  But, once you get past the “I’m just hip enough to get this/I’m so hip that I’m way past this” dichotomy, it turns out that Six-String Samurai is a fairly engaging, sporadically irritating piece of entertainment.  Although it plays like an assignment from a class in postmodern film making—write a script which will serve to distance the author from charges of Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)

59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

“There’s a rare kind of perfection in The Beast of Yucca Flats — the perverse perfection of a piece wherein everything is as false and farcically far-out as can be imagined.”–Tom Weaver, in his introduction to his Astounding B Monster interview with Tony Cardoza

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Coleman Francis

FEATURING: Tor Johnson

PLOT: Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, defects to the United States, carrying with him a briefcase full of Soviet state secrets about the moon.  Fleeing KGB assassins, he runs onto a nuclear testing range just as an atom bomb explodes.  The blast of radiation turns him into an unthinking Beast who strangles vacationers who wander into the Yucca Flats region.

Still from The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Beast of Yucca Flats can always be found somewhere on the IMDB’s “Bottom 100” list (at the time the review was composed, it occupied slot #21).
  • All three of the films Coleman Francis directed were spoofed on “Mystery Science Theater 3000“.
  • Tor Johnson was a retired Swedish wrestler who appeared in several Ed Wood, Jr. movies.  Despite the fact that none of the movies he appeared in were hits, his bestial face became so iconic that it was immortalized as a children’s Halloween mask.
  • All sound was added in post-production.  Voice-overs occur when the characters are at a distance or when their faces are obscured so that the voice actors won’t have to match the characters lips.  Some have speculated that the soundtrack was somehow lost and the narration added later, but shooting without synchronized sound was a not-unheard-of low-budget practice at the time (see The Creeping Terror, Monster A-Go-Go and the early filmography of Doris Wishman).  Internal and external evidence both suggest that the film was deliberately shot silent.
  • Director Coleman Francis is the narrator and appears as a gas station owner.
  • Per actor/producer Tony Cardoza, the rabbit that appears in the final scene was a wild animal that wandered onto the set during filming.  It appears that the feral bunny is rummaging through Tor’s shirt pocket looking for food, however.
  • Cardoza, a close friend of Francis, suggests that the actor/director may have committed suicide in 1973 by placing a plastic bag over his head and inhaling the fumes from his station wagon through a tube, although arteriosclerosis was listed as the official cause of death.
  • The film opens with a topless scene that lasts for only a few seconds; it’s frequently clipped off prints of the film.
  • The Beast of Yucca Flats is believed to be in the public domain and can be legally viewed and downloaded at The Internet Archive, among other sources.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Tor Johnson, in all his manifestations, whether noted scientist or irradiated Beast; but especially when he cuddles and kisses a cute bunny as he lies dying.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Coleman Francis made three movies in his lifetime, all of which


Trailer for The Beast of Yucca Flats with commentary from director Joe Dante (Trailers from Hell)

were set in a reality known only to Coleman Francis.  His other two films (The Skydivers and Night Train to Mundo Fine [AKA Red Zone Cuba]) were grim and incoherent stories of despairing men and women in desolate desert towns who drank coffee, flew light aircraft, and killed off odd-looking extras without finding any satisfaction in the act.  Though his entire oeuvre was more than a bit bent by his joyless outlook on life, his natural affinity for the grotesque, and his utter lack of attention to filmic detail, this Luddite tale of an obese scientist turned into a ravening atomic Beast survives as his weirdest anti-achievement.

COMMENTS:  Touch a button on the DVD player.  Things happen onscreen.  A movie Continue reading 59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

BITCH SLAP (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Jacobson

FEATURING: Julia Voth, Erin Cummings, America Olivo

PLOT: Three chesty babes fight punk interlopers, each other, and the screenwriters’

Still from Bitch Slap (2009)

over-infatuation with flashbacks while searching for a treasure in the desert.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s postmodern pretensions and post-Memento plotting show an ambition for the offbeat, but the producers ultimately understand that it’s cleavage shots and catfights that pay the bills.  An absurdly overdeveloped plot, exaggerated B-movie archetypes, and crazy flashback set pieces staged before unconvincing but imaginative green screen vistas turn Bitch Slap a slightly weirder, but not weird enough, version of a typical late night cable jigglefest.

COMMENTS:  A Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! homage made with a sub-Tarantino snarkiness, Bitch Slap plays fine if you go in with the right (i.e., low) expectations.  The three actresses do well and tackle their roles with relish—Olivo is particularly memorable as Camaro, the pill-popping psycho—but the metaphysically threatening sexuality of a Tura Satana is missing from this batch of castrating Amazons.  Great satire it is not, and at times too much winking self-awareness threatens to sink it, but in the end the correct spirit of silliness almost always  prevails.  It’s one thing when a sleaze rock anthem starts playing and the camera goes slo-mo and split-screen while zooming  leeringly on the ladies’ sweaty bosoms and provocatively cocked hips as they shovel in the desert dressed in tank-tops or tattered evening gowns.  It’s another level of goofiness altogether when the gals temporarily forget about the crime kingpin who’s hunting them down so that they can cool off by throwing jugs of ice water onto one another.  Back stories are revealed in frequent flashbacks, but these serve little function other than allowing the filmmakers to set up crazed green screen set-pieces.  There’s a magical realist scene where a sparkling angel-winged dancer takes stage as the strip club DJ improbably spins “Ave Maria,” a nunsploitation interlude, and a ridiculous shootout on the Las Vegas Strip (which plays Continue reading BITCH SLAP (2009)