Tag Archives: Drug abuse

258. BLOOD FREAK (1972)

“The World’s Only Turkey-Monster-Anti-Drug-Pro-Jesus-Gore Film!”–Blood Freak Special Edition DVD box cover

DIRECTED BY: Brad F. Grinter, Steve Hawkes

FEATURING: Steve Hawkes, Dana Sullivan, Heather Hughes, Brad F. Grinter

PLOT:  Herschell, a Vietnam vet biker, helps good Christian girl Angel fix a flat tire and then accompanies her to a drug party. Angel preaches to the sinning partiers and warns Herschel not to sample marijuana, but temptation of the flesh comes via Angel’s bikini clad sister, Ann. Once hooked on the wiles of the devil, Herschell gets a job at a turkey farm, transforms into a gobbling vampire, and goes on a rampage before finding out he has been hallucinating on pot, which leads him and the now “saved” bikini babe to Jesus.

Still from Blood Freak (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Co-writer/producer/director and star Hawkes took the job to help pay medical bills he incurred as a result of skin grafts necessary to repair third degree burns he received doing a stunt while starring in a Spanish Tarzan film. He referred to Blood Freak as “a sad chapter in my life.” He later started a shelter for wild animals (before being shut down by Florida authorities for not complying with state regulations).
  • The cast consists mostly of acting students from Grinter’s class (yes, he actually was an acting teacher), including an amputee who came in handy as a victim who gets his leg cut off.
  • The original financier backed out of this labor-of-love-by-idiots (apparently, he saw some of the footage), leaving Steve Hawkes and Brad Grinter to finish Blood Freak out of their own pockets.
  • The film was originally rated “X” for violence.
  • Hawkes made a twenty-first century celluloid “comeback” in a pair of zombie movies that no one has seen.
  • Grinter’s only other film “of note” is Flesh Feast (1970), which inspired Veronica Lake to come out of retirement (!?!) to play an insane plastic surgeon whose patient is a zombified Adolf Hitler. Naturally, she comes to her senses and disposes of  the former dictator with chemically bred maggots. After getting saved, Grinter, like Hawkes, retired to a life of Christian anonymity in Florida, dying in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An Elvis imitator donning a papier-mâché turkey head and butchering rubberneckin’ potheads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Chain-smoking anti-drug narrator; proselytizer in Daisy dukes; bad pot/experimental turkey interaction

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Just for starters, the opening narration, delivered by a pencil-mustachioed, gold-chain wearin’ co-director Grinter as he chain smokes: “We live in a world subject to constant change. Every second of every minute of every hour changes take place. These changes are perhaps invisible to us, because our level of awareness is limited. Take for example, how the things we do and say to the people we meet, all these things affect our lives, influence our destiny. And yet there seems to be some kind of fantastic order to the whole thing. We never know how or when we will meet a person who will become a catalyst. Or, who will lead us to one. What is a catalyst? Well, in this case, a catalyst is a person that will bring about changes. They could be good, or bad. But there will be changes. You can meet one almost anywhere, in your everyday life. In a supermarket, drugstore, anywhere. Even riding down the Florida Turnpike. A pretty girl with a problem. Who could resist? Certainly not Herschell.” Take that irresistible intro, add a “grass is bad, Jesus is good” message, and mix it with some gory mayhem perpetrated by a mass murdering turkey Nosferatu. Although, viewers may ask: Why a turkey? Do turkeys crave blood?


Original trailer for Blood Freak

COMMENTS:  The Christian scare film to end all Christian scare Continue reading 258. BLOOD FREAK (1972)

CAPSULE: ANTIBIRTH (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Meg Tilly, Mark Weber, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

PLOT: A hard living party-girl finds herself pregnant, without remembering how.

Still from Antibirth (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Antibirth is satisfying for horror fans looking for a few surreal thrills, but it’s more of an announcement of what Perez might be capable of in the future than it is a current achievement in weirdness. In the end, despite some bizarre plotting, Antibirth resolves itself as standard scare fare.

COMMENTS: Antibirth is a stoner version of Rosemary’s Baby, with a touch of Cronenbergian body horror and a dab of hallucinatoriness (and maybe a bit of Jacob’s Ladder in there, too). Disquieting dream sequences, paranoia, peeling skin, and a grossout birth highlight the horror; but what is perhaps even more surprising is that the film almost works best as a character study. When you’re in your twenties, wasting your weekends on joints, pills and whiskey at all night raves is adventurous. When you enter your thirties and you’re still chasing that buzz every day, it’s clear that you’ve given up on getting anything more out of life—including a family. This is where Lou finds herself, when she puts down the bong for five minutes of self-reflection. Hedonism has become a pleasure-free hassle for her, a hazy daily obligation. She takes the news that she might be pregnant with the resignation of someone who thinks she might be coming down with the flu. The news has no effect on her smoking, toking and drinking decisions, though perhaps some effect on her snacking choices.

Natasha Lyonne was absolutely the right choice for Lou; her defiant, almost principled refusal to take responsibility for the life growing inside her holds the film together while the plot is simultaneously spinning out of control and spinning its wheels. Traditional thinking might have been to cast the more glamorous Sevigny as the victim, putting the quirkier Lyonne into the wisecracking sidekick role; but having the heroine and the comic relief inhabit the same body works better in this context. Half of her dialogue is delivered while trying to hold in pot smoke, and she gets off some good lines: “I don’t talk about aliens when I’m getting high. I have a strict policy.” As Sadie, Sevigny gets a couple of involuntary zingers, too: “We need to accept this, every pregnancy is different,” she offers, when Lou’s already full-term after a week’s gestation.

The dream sequence featuring furry purple Teletubby mutants with expressionless porcelain faces presiding over an alien insemination is Antibirth‘s take-home vision, but there is enough oddness—a cleft-palette Russian urine slave, and the plethora of public access weirdos glimpsed briefly on antenna TV stations—to put the timid mainstream viewer off long before that pièce de résistance arrives. Overall, Antibirth is uneven, but highly watchable thanks to the compulsive trainwreck bad behavior of Lyonne’s anti-heroine. Some people just shouldn’t procreate.

We first met Danny Perez with 2010’s Oddsac, the psychedelic, feature-length “visual album” for freak-folkers Animal Collective. It’s something of a surprise that he had to wait six years before giving birth to his first feature; the material may not be mainstream, but the result is accomplished.

It is a complete, but happy, accident that this review is originally published on Labor Day.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird, messy and oddly fascinating, this low-budget horror movie parlays its ‘Rosemary”s Baby-to-the-nth-degree premise into a gross-out fever dream aimed at fans of the way, way out.”–Maitland McDonaugh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

THE ACID EATERS (1968)

Plot-spoiler police beware!

The Acid Eaters (1968)…

Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock…

up the pyramid of white blotter.

Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock goes the white clock and…

a man climbs down a tree and then climbs up another tree.

Tick Tock… telephone operators at work, Tick Tock…man stamps checks, Tick Tock… man paints pictures, Tick Tock…man pours booze for shaking, hungry awaiting hands, Tick Tock…

Whistle blows… man eats sandwich with mouth open, Whistle blows…toilet flushes…woman eats McFries with mouth open, toilet flushes, 60s chicks do … well, something, toilet flushes…Whistle blows…  TickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTockTickTockTickTockTickTockTickTock

Lather, rinse, repeat.

the_acid_eaters_1Peopledowalk. Carsdodrive. Therebeawhitepyramidofacid…People dowalk. Carsdodrive…Therebeawhitepyramidofacid…People dowalk. Carsdodrive… boomchickaboom, boomchickaboom, boomchickaboomboomchickaboomboomchickaboomboomchickaboomboomchicksintightminiskirtshuggingbuttsboomchickaboomguysintightjeanshuggingbuttsboomchickaboomboomchickaboom…wahwahwah…rusty trumpet….wahwahwah…dudes and chicks on harleys…adoo ado dodo… sniffle, sniffle…awah…dowah…do d…d…rahdowah…acid eaters skinny dip…

“Mumblemumble…I’m ready for another crash drive.”

“Take a deep breath Ally baby, I got 4 packets full!!!”

“You ready to fly?”

“Let’s crash drive once more.”

“SAVE IT FOR LATER SAILOR.”

Splishsplashboobsa’flashin’.

“Have I got the colors ! I’ll make a masterpiece. What’s your pleasure, treasure?”

“reD, RedHot.”

W…wwwwwwahwwwwah

runredpaintdownflabbyside… Wwwwwahhh. Gasp.

Chinkachongtototototototwahboomsplashsplishsplashtakinabathwahwahawahahramatamtam…

Plane flies.

GO LSD. See your travel agent.

splishsplash.

Still from The Acid Eaters (1968)Primary colors. Smokin’ ceegarettes  before da Lawd invents boob jobs.

Vince Guaraldi’s white blotter pyramid.

Theblondebabedoeshaveboobs. Yellowstripe. Bluecircle. Continue reading THE ACID EATERS (1968)

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.


Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

CAPSULE: THE DOORS (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , Meg Ryan, , Kathleen Quinlan

PLOT: In the 1960’s, Jim Morrison (Kilmer), the lead singer of the rock group The Doors, plunges headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He doesn’t make it out alive, dying at the tragically young age of 27 (just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin); the film ends on a shot of Morrison’s gravestone in Paris in the same cemetery as Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.

Still from The Doors (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Just because a movie features a large number of hallucinatory LSD “trips” doesn’t necessarily make it weird.

COMMENTS: No one does overblown insanity like Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday). On a huge movie theater screen, with huge movie theater sound, The Doors was a stunning, overwhelming experience—particularly the concert sequences, which Stone said were inspired by the orgy scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments. But on television—even a big screen HDTV—all that spectacle is reduced to an entertainingly silly and pretentious camp exercise, redeemed by one unforgettable performance by Val Kilmer that almost alone makes the film worth seeing. Although Kilmer essentially reduces Morrison to a caricature (he never seems to be sober), he looks and sounds so much like the real thing that it’s eerie. How Kilmer didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. He blows everyone else off the screen (with the arguable exception of , perfectly cast in a cameo as ). Meg Ryan fights her girl-next-door-image as Morrison’s doomed lover Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley have nothing to do but a slow burn as “The Lizard King”’s increasingly frustrated bandmates. Morrison is increasingly haunted by visions of his own death, the ghost of Dionysus (or something), and an elderly Native American man (Floyd Red Crow Westerman); as everyone on screen descends deeper into drugs and despair (Morrison and Courson each try to kill each other), the movie spins so far out of control it almost ventures into territory. The result is that nearly everyone in the film comes off as seriously unlikable. Morrison seems to believe he deserves to be buried with Balzac, Proust and Moliere–which he ultimately was—from frame one. That being said, some of us like silly and pretentious spectacle, so, if you are one of those, try to see this film on the biggest possible screen and the best sound system around. This would at least attempt to do justice to the Doors’ legendary music and Robert Richardson’s staggering cinematography.

Stone’s 141-minute wallow in hysterical excess and bombast is nutty and ultimately exhausting, but far from weird, particularly when it comes to movies about drugs and/or rock music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most peculiar about the film is Stone’s attitude toward his hero. He’s indulging in hagiography, but of a very weird sort. A good part of the film is dedicated to demonstrating what a drunken, boring lout Morrison was. But while on the one hand Stone acknowledges how basically pointless and destructive his excesses became, on the other, he keeps implying that it’s all part of the creative process… Amid all this trippy incoherence, the performances are almost irrelevant.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

Recommended

“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”–attributed to Thomas Pynchon in Jules Siegel’s Mar. 1977 Playboy profile

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , Katherine Waterston, , Martin Short

PLOT: It’s 1970, and P.I. “Doc” Sportello has his evening interrupted by his ex-girlfriend, concerned about a plot on the part of her new lover’s wife (and the wife’s lover) to institutionalize him. Doc’s investigation has barely begun before he stumbles across, and is stumbled upon, by a coterie of oddballs, all with their own problems. Skinhead bikers, the LAPD, a dentist tax-avoidance syndicate, and an ominous smuggling ring known as the Golden Fang all get linked together as Doc hazily maneuvers through some very far-out pathways indeed.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
BACKGROUND:

  • The notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published “Inherent Vice,” his seventh novel, in 2009. Although they sell well and have cult followings, no Pynchon novel had previously been adapted for the screen, mainly because the author’s plots are too complex and confusing to fit the film format. Anderson had considered adapting “V” or “Mason & Dixon,” but found both impossible to translate into a coherent screenplay.
  • According to Josh Brolin, Pynchon appeared somewhere in the film in a cameo, although this is difficult to confirm as the last known photograph of the author was clandestinely snapped in the early 1990s.
  • Though filled with A-list actors and nominated for two Academy Awards, Inherent Vice only recouped $11 million worldwide of its $20 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While being given a ride from LAPD headquarters, Doc Sportello notices the… mmm, thoroughness with which Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen attends to his frozen banana. The scene goes on for a while — and is odd in and of itself — but also gives a suggestion of the peculiar psychological relationship between the two.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Telephone paranoia; playboy dentist; moto panikako!

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Its overexposed colors and garish hippie costumes immediately summon the film’s era, creating an image somehow both sharp and blurred. Similarly, the movie travels along a bumpy, diversion-filled path toward an unexpectedly tidy conclusion. The combination of comedy and paranoia works well — this movie will leave you chuckling and, afterwards, slightly worried the next time your phone rings.


Official trailer for Inherent Vice

COMMENTS: Confusion descends upon the viewer early on in Continue reading 206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

CAPSULE: MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julianne Moore, , , Evan Bird,

PLOT: The lives of several Hollywood insiders intertwine unexpectedly after the arrival of Agatha, a mysterious young woman who intrudes upon the lives of a wannabe screenwriter, a popular teen heartthrob, a self-help TV guru, and a successful but aging actress.

Still from Maps to the Stars (2014))
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its combination of Hollywood satire, ghostly apparitions, homicidal sensationalism, and heaps of incest does hit a few marks on the Weird-o-Meter, but Maps to the Stars doesn’t plunge into the depths of weirdness achieved in Cronenberg’s earlier, body horror-centric features like Dead Ringers and Videodrome.

COMMENTS: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) has been around show business all her life. Her mother was a popular actress made more notable when she died tragically in a fire while still in the prime of youth, and now a prominent director is re-imagining her most famous film, with Havana gunning for a supporting role as her mother’s imaginary grown self. At a crossroads in her career and still coming to terms with sexual abuse she suffered at her mother’s hand, Havana sees the sudden arrival of new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) as a sign and instantly takes her in. Meanwhile, teen sensation Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird)—only 13 and just out of rehab—is filming the sequel to his hit comedy Bad Babysitter, but finds himself upstaged by his child costar. His father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a New Age self-help therapist with a talk show and a sea of celebrity clients, including Havana Segrand.

In that unsurprising cinematic way, these and many other lives are intricately connected through family and work, and Agatha becomes both the glue that binds them and the catastrophe that unsettles them. The incestuous nature of mainstream filmmaking is thus satirized, but with a heavy dose of actual incest. It is never outwardly explained or analyzed, it’s just there, a stated and very present fact looming over every interaction. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner packs in every ounce of sensationalism worthy of a Star headline, from sex and abuse to drug addiction and murder, bluntly illustrating the complete breakdown of this family beset by mental illness but unable to cope with it while in the public eye. It’s all done with a slight sense of distance, with each character playing exaggerated versions of real people and the whole observed with a cool eye, so that we won’t feel guilty laughing. Much has been made of Maps to the Stars being Cronenberg’s “first comedy” (though the director himself claims he’s never made anything but comedies), and it is for the most part quite funny. Between Moore’s exaggerated California accent, Cusack’s self-help b.s., Agatha’s tall tales, snarky movie references, and the winking celebrity self-obsession, there is a lot to laugh about.

Of course, Hollywood satire is nothing new, but Cronenberg  gives it his own sick, twisted take, fusing Greek melodrama and tongue-in-cheek humor with inescapable darkness. The story is populated with ghostly apparitions that haunt Havana and Benjie, gradually moving in on their already-fragile psyches. The egoism and lack of empathy so many associate with the movie industry are made manifest in these people, and their punishment is poetic. Though removed from the body horror aesthetic for which he is perhaps still most known, the film is visually striking in its very deliberate framing of characters, its stark, modern interiors, its costumes-as-uniforms, and its jarring juxtapositions. (There is, however, one major visual hiccup in a self-immolation scene towards the end that I hope was a self-aware commentary on cinematic artificiality because the CGI was terrible.) The vicious but contained acts of violence are brutal and chilling, escalating quickly until it becomes clear there can be no easy way out for anyone, every character has essentially been digging their own grave from the beginning. The abrupt changes in tone and focus could be distracting, but the very talented cast takes it all in stride and manages to make it work, moved along by the thoughtful direction. Besides, it’s not like anyone is going to a Cronenberg film expecting a nice, neat little package where everything works out in the end, right?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s something bizarrely funny as well as truly sad in the director’s vision of Rodeo Drive denizens and their heavily medicated affects.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: INHERENT VICE (2014)

Inherent Vice has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Read the Certified Weird entry here.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , Katherine Waterston, , Martin Short

PLOT: In 1970 Los Angeles, private investigator and marijuana enthusiast “Doc” Sportello investigates several converging cases while dodging a hippie-hating police detective out to get him.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Paul Thomas Anderson’s work has flitted around the edges of the bizarre, beginning with the baffling ending to Magnolia, through the reader-recommended oddity Punch-Drunk Love and the existential meanderings of The Master. With this stoned adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s studiously esoteric novel, Anderson may finally have passed over to the weird side for good.

COMMENTS: I don’t think it’s a mistake that’s it’s easy to misread the title Inherent Vice as Incoherent Voice. This smoky noir in which everything connects, but nothing does, is like a comic version of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” (the novel, not the movie); but instead of an expatriate junkie’s 1950s nightmare, it’s an American pothead’s 1960s reality of a world of alarming signifiers (Vietnam, the Manson family, Nixon rallies) that float past, occasionally colliding and combining like the hot wax spheres in a lava lamp. The plot is doled out in fits and starts, as if Doc is suffering from blackouts. He probably as; at one point he writes “not hallucinating” in his detective’s notebook as an act of self-reassurance. Characters like Reese Witherspoon’s hot-to-trot assistant D.A. or ‘s maritime lawyer plop in to drop bits of exposition without much explanation of who they are, where they came from or why they care. Like a slightly more coherent Branded to Kill, deconstructing  American detectives instead of Japanese yakuza, Inherent Vice assembles its pseudo-story out of warped genre tropes: hard-bitten detectives who inhale bong hits instead of slamming shots of bourbon; femme fatales who manipulate saps into giving them a good spanking.

Better to think of Inherent Vice not as a plotted movie, but as a movie composed of free-associated plot elements. There’s a decadent real-estate magnate with a private sex cult, Aryan biker gangs, hippie-hating flattoped cops, a disappearing surf-sax player, an insane asylum that doubles as a private prison, and a vertically integrated Taiwanese heroin consortium. For added oddness, there’s conspicuous product placement for nonexistent brands, ridiculous fang-shaped skyscrapers that pop up in formerly empty lots, and a manic Martin Short as a drug-snorting, cradle-robbing dentist. There is even resolution, of a sort: Doc discovers all of the missing persons before the end credits roll. But you may be mystified as to how he did it.

Inherent Vice is the new masterpiece of hippie noir. It rides that fine line between rationality and irrationality, heading towards a hazy neverland where universal paranoia holds sway. Not only does it ride that line, it eventually snorts it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an aggressively weird movie, which you should take not as a warning but as a compliment and an invitation to see it, to let its stoner vibes wash all over you.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DON PEYOTE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Fogler, Michael Canzoniero

FEATURING: Dan Fogler, Kelly Hutchinson, Yang Miller

PLOT: An unemployed pot-smoking graphic novelist takes psychedelic drugs, becomes involved with conspiracy theorists, has a psychotic breakdown, ends up in a mental hospital, and eventually becomes a homeless prophet.

Still from Don Peyote (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST
: Don Peyote is an unapologetic, full-out drug trip movie—and while it’s hard to make a drug trip movie that’s totally boring, it’s even harder to make one that can sustain interest for a full 90 minutes. Psychonauts may be pleased that someone’s finally telling a story from their perspective, but Don Peyote is too chaotic and not entertaining enough to crossover from that demographic.

COMMENTS: A comedy solidly aimed at those who know their ayahuasca from a hole in the ground, Don Peyote is the rare film (nowadays, at least) that’s unabashedly psychedelic; a movie full of characters for whom chugging down a few buttons of hallucinogenic cactus and touring the universe from the comfort of their own skull constitutes a typical boring Friday night at home. If it’s sheer trippiness you’re after, Peyote delivers, with visions of aquatic goddesses, spontaneous folk-rock dance numbers, and guys in demonic bunny suits waiting around every bend. If it’s structured trippiness and insight into life’s great questions you seek, however, go somewhere else, because the all-over-the-cosmos plot has the attention span of an adult-onset ADD patient who has noshed on too many shrooms. If you don’t like what’s happening in Don Peyote, just wait five minutes and soon it will be doing something completely unrelated: hero Warren goes from planning a wedding to conspiracy theorizing to embarking on a vision quest, all while tripping on various esoteric drugs and suffering from spontaneous hallucinations that just might result from underlying schizophrenia. Although almost a decade has supposedly passed by the end of the story, I think the theory that the whole movie is just Warren’s hallucination from smoking a joint laced with wolfsbane he’s handed in the film’s first ten minutes is still in play when the closing credits roll.

Lack of focus is one of the film’s main issues; the other its wishy-washy infatuation with its unappealing central character. Warren is, frankly, what most people would consider a loser, a burnout, but the script doesn’t see him as an object of ridicule. A satire about an aging druggie struggling with the demands of adulthood could have supplied some great laughs, but we are asked to look at this character instead as an everyman (his last name is even “Allman”) in a world gone mad. But how are we supposed to buy, for example, that this perpetually-high career loafer has an attractive, financially-secure fiancée who’s anxious to start a family with him? I mean, I understand that there are some desperate women in Manhattan, but this is a chubby, unemployed grungoid in his 30s who sponges off her, constantly smokes pot out of an apple, and breaks into a rant about the shadow government during pre-marital counseling. Yet we are encouraged to root for Warren, not laugh at him. In the original “Don Quixote,” Cervantes made merciless cruel fun of his deluded title character, but this story treats its main character too gently, more like the Man of la Munchies.

The running subplot about Warren making a documentary about the Mayan 2012 apocalypse draws a link between psychedelic drugs and conspiracy theorism as alternate (if complementary) methods of avoiding reality. The connection between drug-taking and far-out mind-control weirdness also featured in the recent indie thriller The Banshee Chapter, so the conspiracy/psychedelic alliance may be something that’s brewing in the fringe zeitgeist at the moment.

In a nod to the great psychedelic ensemble movies of the late 1960s, like Casino Royale or The Magic Christian (where a Christopher Lee or a Raquel Welch might pop up in a tiny cameo), Don Peyote features a modest parade of hip bit-players: Jay Baruchel as a pot dealer, Topher Grace in an amusing meta-movie role as headliner Fogler’s two-faced agent, Wallace “My Dinner with Andre” Shawn as a cookie-eating psychiatrist, Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara driving a cab, cult philosopher delivering a gonzo monologue, and, in the biggest coup, Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway as an I.R.S. agent with full Illuminati intelligence clearance.

Stoners who are already salivating over the trippy trailer will likely find Don Peyote hits the psychedelic sweet spot, especially when employing their favorite substance as a booster. The sober-minded are not as likely to be amused by the light-on-laughs, high-on-goofiness script, but may find some curiosity value in the casting and general rambunctiousness.

Don Peyote debuts May 9 on video-on-demand and starts a limited theatrical run the following week.

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…feels like a scholarly acid trip mixed with every paranoid druggie’s worst nightmare, but plays like a story your local weed dealer stumbles through helplessly while you try and force him out of your house.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SICK BIRDS DIE EASY (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Fackler

FEATURING: Dana Altman, Ross Brockley, Nicholas Fackler

PLOT: A cast and crew of drug addicts/imbeciles travel to the heart of Central Africa to partake of a rare psychedelic that is rumored to cure drug addiction. Once they arrive, they encounter spirituality, mysticism, and their own bloated egos.

Sick Birds Die Easy


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is nothing truly abnormal about what befalls our plucky adventurers in this docu-something about interlopers in the Garden of Eden (aren’t we all?). Director Nicholas Fackler positions himself as a Colonel Kurtz of visual storytelling, but emerges from this breezy jungle nightmare looking more like Dennis Hopper’s shell-shocked photojournalist.

COMMENTS: At the heart of Sick Birds Die Easy is a message that speaks to the heart of the human experience. Unfortunately, for all concerned, that message is “I dunno either, man.” It’s a propaganda movie about the benefits of iboga, a plant that even the film doubts the real merits of; a drama about Nick’s annoying friends trapped in a Why-Can’t-We-All-Just-Get-Along crisis; a harrowing thriller about being lost in the jungle with a load of nitwits surrounded by danger; and an aloof, self-loathing indie comedy with an admittedly killer soundtrack. And while these are all interesting angles, when none of them in this movie seem to lead anywhere or are expressed with any conviction or belief in anything. Ironically, it ends up as a film about a film getting lost.

In a voice that was made for documentary narration, Nick Fackler spins a tale in the opening moments about the grandiose ideas he plans to tackle: spirituality, primordial magic, alternate reality, and an Apocalypse that will reveal the next direction of human consciousness. The next minute destroys any hope that these ideas will ever be explored seriously in this film again, as musician Sam Martin drunkenly opines about being a gay baby who needs a diaper during the opening credits. The picture never sets up a goal or a narrative that is satisfyingly fulfilled in any way; even the main quest, which involves getting Nick’s drug dealer Ross to the Pygmy tribe’s Fwiti ritual so he can be cleansed of his drug-loving ways, is neither embarked upon meaningfully (they all bring drugs into the jungle!) or brought to a satisfying conclusion.

Perhaps, in a post-modern context, this film is a deconstruction of expectations, narrative, or reality itself. From the press material, and even from the shaky-cam film festival Q&As these stoner-philosophers sit for, it is difficult to determine whether or not the events of Sick Birds Die Easy were of a non-fictitious nature, especially considering the insane and the insanely conveniently cinematic way the movie unfolds. It’s chock full of gripping indie trailer moments and feats of such uncanny luck that would make Las Vegas blush with envy. It could be construed as a deconstruction of the documentary genre as a whole. But if that is the case, and all these loose ends are really missiles pointing at the human need for resolution in art, then I still have a problem with Sick Birds Die Easy, because it has also deconstructed joy, hope, and optimism in the name of questionable art. I hope that this is a film merely without a brain, and not without a heart.

Sick Birds, for all the questions it raises, is a well-constructed documentary (?) with a good narrative engine that drives along at a humming pace to the beat of some good tunes by Sam Martin. Nick Fackler has an eye for what intrigues people visually, and he creates a vista that gives us a grand look at his burgeoning capabilities as a filmmaker. But intellectually, this experience suffers from too many shallow, mildly psychopathic, or perhaps merely bleak ideas, placed behind the veils of “spirituality,” “alternate realities,” “apocalypse”, and other trailer buzzwords. Watch Sick Birds Die Easy, like our intrepid dopes going into the jungles of Africa, at your own risk. And leave your common sense at the door; you won’t need it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“So what’s Sick Birds Die Easy really about? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. I’m still completely on the fence as to whether I can take the movie seriously as a documentary, or not.” -Amy R. Handler, Film Threat