This short features a poem and animation based on the drug abuse of the creator’s sister as a teenager. The animation itself has its weird moments, but the sullen reading of the poetry is what makes watching this short an exciting, yet uncomfortable experience.
CONTENT WARNING: This short contains drug use and artistic nudity.
FEATURING: Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Justin Chatwin, Ralph Fiennes, Glenn Close, Allison Janney, William Fitchner
PLOT: In a wealthy California suburb, disaffected teen Dean finds himself snared in an amateur blackmail and kidnapping plot after his only friend, a drug supplier, hangs himself and local high school dealers assume Dean knows the location of the stash.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie is indeed weird—partly by design, and (I suspect) partially by accident—but doesn’t benefit by it. It’s worth a look as a curiosity, but doesn’t rise to a Listable level.
COMMENTS: The Chumscrubber is exactly what the title says it is. What, you don’t know what a “chumscrubber” is? That’s OK, neither does the movie. Well, that’s not 100% true. In fact, the “chumscrubber” is a decapitated character from an apocalyptic teen video game—presumably one that scrubs chum when offscreen. But what’s it doing in this movie? What it supposed to symbolize? And why it was deemed a significant enough entity to name the movie after despite getting only a few minutes of screen time? Only the writer knows the answer for sure.
The scattershot script has a lot of problems. For example, what would you do if a group of bullies whom you hated, who had no leverage over you whatsoever, tried to blackmail you into committing a crime? If you said “either ignore them or report them to the police,” congratulations: you just ended the movie early. If you said “go along with their incriminating scheme, obviously,” then you may be target audience for The Chumscrubber. Besides the implausibility of that central plot point, other, more promising gambits, like dueling wedding/memorial parties scheduled for the same day and the surreptitious introduction of ecstasy into a casserole, promise wacky hijinks to come, then fizzle out when they arrive.
Yet, with all it’s issues, The Chumscrubber isn’t a terrible movie experience. The suburban satirical targets may be too obvious, but the you-never-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next plot is refreshing, even fun. The movie has a lot going on to keep your mind occupied: Dean’s troubled teen travails, drug abuse (both recreational and prescription), bullying, kidnapping, a hallucinating hero, bad video game CGI, a misguided romantic subplot, and an entire bonus movie shoehorned in about mild-mannered mayor Ralph Fiennes, who is either going crazy or is the victim of an identity shift. The fine cast does their best in individual scenes that work better than the whole, and the auteurial ambition shines through. Embodying passive-aggressive grief-engendered dementia, Glenn Close is ace, as always. She understands that this material only really works as a black comedy, and seems to be acting in a different (and better) movie. Allison Janney, as Dean’s mom, plays against Close well, allowing herself to be guilt-tripped and becoming one of the few three-dimensional characters. Lead Jamie Bell, a poor man’s Jesse Eisenberg, also puts in quality work. The other veterans in the cast do their best, fighting characterizations that don’t have much depth or sense to them (Fiennes seems particularly bewildered and unsure how to handle his bizarre role).
It’s not surprising that Arie Posin (almost) never worked in movies again. But it’s pretty amazing that he was able to make this meandering, would-be cult movie—with A- list talent, to boot.
“At this point I had realized that Damon’s film was like a Zen riddle. The more you tried to understand it with rational thought, the more it’s true meaning eluded you. I’d learned just to sit back and enjoy the experience.”–Thad Vassmer, “The Making of Reflections of Evil”
DIRECTED BY: Damon Packard
FEATURING: Damon Packard, Nicole Vanderhoff
PLOT: Bob is a grossly overweight man trying to make a living peddling watches on the streets of present-day L.A. In flashback, we learn that his sister Julie died of an overdose in the 1970s. Julie’s spirit seeks out Bob with an important message from beyond the grave, which she eventually delivers to him at Universal Studios theme park.
Packard self-funded the film with an inheritance he received—one source estimated it at $500,000. He spent everything on the film and was broke immediately afterwards.
Packard sent out over 20,000 original DVDs he paid to have pressed for free, sending many to celebrities. He published some of their reactions on the movie’s now-defunct official website.
Reflections of Evil encountered serious distribution problems because of its unlicensed use of copyrighted material (such as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships”). Packard recut the film in 2004 to avoid these issues (we review a different cut here).
Per the end credits, Universal Studios “permanently banned” Packard (presumably due to his guerilla shooting on their property).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bob’s massive, angry face seems to fill about every third or fourth frame. You’d be safe picking any one of the many warped camera tricks Packard uses to make his own bloated visage appear even more grotesque.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Young Spielberg’s death set; the Golden Guru; Schindler’s List: The Ride
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hiding behind the generic title Reflections of Evil (presumably chosen because Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid was already taken) is one of the most personal and peculiar movies ever made: a homemade mélange of bizarre editing, black helicopters, vintage 1970s commercials, angry L.A. street people, barking dogs, a barking watch salesman, a ghost in a see-through nightgown, and so much more. Repetitive, abrasive, grotesque, and intermittently brilliant, Reflections will shatter your mind, leaving you wondering whether you’ve just watched the magnum opus of a crude genius or a the manifesto of a genuine madman.
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.
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?
PLOT: A hard living party-girl finds herself pregnant, without remembering how.
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 David Lynch 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 Crispin Glover, perfectly cast in a cameo as Andy Warhol). 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 Ken Russell 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.
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.
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.