FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford
PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.
After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed—but she’ll cast one anyway, just to make sure.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”
FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel
PLOT: A California witch who casts magic spells to seek out her true love finds that her lovers keep dying.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively unique—a blend of romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectic, and Technicolor melodramas—that perhaps it can only rightfully described as “weird.”
COMMENTS: One main stylistic feature of The Love Witch is the campy acting—Samantha Robinson’s Elaine speaks as if she’s always lost in an interior world of hearts and unicorns, making her sound insincere even when she’s at her most heartfelt. Other actors take an overly broad, TV-melodrama approach. This technique helps sustain the film’s sense of otherworldliness, but the other, and far more impressive, stylistic feature is the unreal, anachronistic, and impressively detailed mise-en-scene. A girly-girl café where the clientele all dress in pink and white with flowery hats—looking more like bridesmaids than ladies out for a spot of tea—while ethereal blondes play harps and sing medieval love hymns. The local burlesque house, in a lustful red-on-red color scheme, where dancers with feather boas never take it all off but ensorcell the drooling males nonetheless. The Renaissance Faire run by witches, where Elaine and her date “accidentally” end up wed in a mock pagan ceremony. The minutiae of Elaine’s witchcraft rituals, which at one point involves her honoring a corpse with her urine and a used tampon. Clever details and decorative ideas abound in nearly every scene. Reversing the seduction stereotype, Elaine uses a comically oversized brandy snifter to decrease her conquests’ inhibitions. Trish finds Elaine’s witchcraft altar full of bizarre potions and magickal totems, then walks into her adjoining bedroom to discover, oriented in exact mirror image position, a vanity set out with wig, perfume, and makeup.
The smart script is not simplistic in its satire; it prides itself on creating and holding contradictory views. Elaine and her friends toss out ideas about femininity that are sometimes laughably old-fashioned, but are sometimes still with us today, and trusts us to sort out which are which. Witchcraft is shown as harmless New Agey neo-paganism, no more or less ritually ridiculous than Christianity, but it’s also a source of implied abuse and exploitation, and a real threat to the community. And of course, the biggest contradiction of all is Elaine, a mixture of idealism and ruthless cunning, who expresses naïve ideas with a simple conviction that no one can effectively refute, simultaneously a victim and a serial victimizer.
Because the stylistic world Anna Biller creates in The Love Witch is cinematically familiar—with its widescreen compositions, brazen color schemes, cigarette smoking femme fatales and square-jawed cops—many are tempted to go hunting for movie references and homages. Indeed, I was reminded of The Birds (in Elaine’s rear-projection convertible ride up the California coast), Jess Franco (the nude witchcraft rituals), The Trip (the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens when Elaine seduces the hippie professor) and TV’s “Dragnet” (in the sappy hard-boiled dialogue of the police squad room); others cite Hammer horror, Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as inspirations. But none of the scenes Biller stages are outright allusions or in-jokes. She absorbs the period style—particularly its vivacious use of the full chromatic scale—-without simply referencing a checklist of favorite films; you’ll search in vain for nods to her specific influences. The Love Witch is a Sixties-era Technicolor B-movie that could have been, but in an alternate universe at a slight tangent to our own. The biggest compliment I can give Biller is to say that she does something for 1960s Technicolor spectacles similar to what Guy Maddin did for silents and early talkies: she uses antiquated techniques to create a timeless, abstract setting that reflects her own personality. It’s gratifying to see her receive critical praise for this monumentally inventive and deceptively intelligent feminist statement dressed in Satanic sexploitation robes.
“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.
PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.
This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even harder than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
“Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.
PLOT: Set in the apocalyptic future, an outlandish young punk battles the mega-corporation that controls the world’s water, with a little help, of course, from mutant kangaroos.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The peculiar visual palette and oddball characters in Tank Girl don’t stand out from the omnipresent colorful punk aesthetics of its time. Its tonal inconsistency and mildly bizarre violence (along with a manic Lori Petty) can serve as a sort of goofy surreal serenade, but it never ventures far enough from its comic book origins to really sizzle.
COMMENTS: The 1990’s was an interesting, vibrant period for punk culture. The 1981 Penelope Spheeris documentary The Decline of Western Civilization introduced us to heaps of buzz-cut youngsters sporting thrashed denim and safety pins, their mumbled words scattered due to their adrenaline pumped, amphetamine-fried brains. Nearly a decade later, after punk had (to some degree) conceded to generic glam/hair metal, Spheeris released part three of Decline, but the kids looked different this time around. Gone were the black and white clothes, the shaved heads. These kids had rainbow spiked hair held up with egg whites, as they snorted neon Slurpees up their noses while their zit-infested faces smothered the camera. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, kids on the fringes of the punk scene were embracing pop sensibilities and dying their hair like Billy Joe from Green Day while they bought Offspring shirts and purple hair dye from Hot Topic. It was an ideal time for a project like the counterculture comic book adaptation Tank Girl to get greenlit. Tank Girl, which shares an aesthetic with other excessively lively and colorful 90’s movies like Batman Forever and Double Dragon, emerged as a mainstream amalgamation of a larger cultural shift that would continue with the punkish neon of movies like The Phantom and SLC Punk. Channeling inspiration from punk rock culture and feminism, Tank Girl soars with excessive frivolity.
Staying close to true punk form, Tank Girl also contains crass humor and some reasonably nihilistic violence. Like the militant, borderline-psychotic urban youth that got their kicks from cheap speed and beating up poseurs, the titular character (Lori Petty) seems to get off on pain, whether inflicted on herself or others. She chuckles mirthfully after strapping some grenades to a goon’s vest—a combat move that brings to mind a certain Caped Crusader’s mischief in another punk-indebted 90’s film—and responds to a grave threat from Kesslee (villain Malcolm McDowell) with the line “I like pain”. Indeed, Tank Girl snottily defies convention by wearing its B-movie badge with honor. All the performances seem to sync with the frisky ambiance, the one exception being the nascent Watts as the square Jet Girl, who in a perfect world may have fared better swapping her role Continue reading CAPSULE: TANK GIRL (1995)→
FEATURING: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg
PLOT: A sexually precocious teen girl who is virulently anti-hygiene tries to seduce her male nurse when she is hospitalized with anal fissures.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Wetlands proudly advertises itself as “the most WTF, NSFW movie” of the year, and it is unique in that it’s the world’s first art-house gross-out romantic comedy. It’s worth a look for the way it blends cuteness and transgression with a peppering of magical realism moments, but it’s more provocative than weird in the end.
COMMENTS: I recently saw a Dutch study that came to the common-sense conclusion that sexual arousal overcomes feelings of disgust, allowing us to propagate the species despite the fact that the process of sexual intercourse involves a lot of foul smells and exchange of potentially deadly fluid-borne bacteria. So it’s no surprise that Wetlands makes its hemorrhoid-ridden heroine with the crusty panties a) horny and b) hot. Helen may be unhygienic, but thankfully she’s photogenic. A movie about a fat, homely girl who disdains hygiene and trades tampons with her best friend would be far harder to (forgive me) swallow.
There are more than a few softcore (and some pretty hardcore) sex scenes here, and graphic “ick” moments that will remind you of illustrated versions kinds of stories teenage boys like to swap in locker rooms to make each other gag. There are also a sprinkling of hallucinatory scenes to catch weirdophiles interest, anchored by the moment where an aroused Helen sees a tree sprouting from her vagina. Perhaps even more visually impressive is the opening credits’ psychedelic trip through the rainbow forest of microflora and fauna growing on a filthy public toilet bowl. Helen confesses that she “often mixes up reality, lies and dreams,” which calls into question some of her more extreme exploits, but her hallucinations are always psychologically revealing, and sometimes dead-on satirical (as in the fantasy where her mother faces her greatest fear—being struck by a bus while wearing a pair of dirty underwear).
Wetlands intends to challenge what it contends are our irrational prejudices about the uncleanliness of our own bodies. But in knowingly pushing the audience’s gross-out buttons, it sometimes perforates the wall of absurdity to the point where its legitimate message is lost. The pizza scene, in particular, seems like something that belongs in a Pink Flamingos sequel. The movie risks sweeping its argument about the irrationality of taboos away in a flood of menstrual blood, mucous, semen, and the miscellaneous fluids that pool on the floor of one particularly unhygienic public toilet. Wetlands is filled with womb and birth imagery that suggests that the process of becoming human is inescapably wet and smelly, and that perhaps we should embrace that reality as joyously as our heroine does. Yet, Helen confesses that she’s had herself secretly sterilized. The statement is made offhandedly, and maybe its one of the lies that Helen mixes up with truth, but it metaphorically cuts off the “life-affirming” reading. Still, although it might be a little thematically confused and try too hard to shock, Wetlands is bold and original in tone, and it boasts a brave and winning performance from Carla Juri (who convincingly captures the raunchy and rebellious charm of a free-spirited teenager despite being in her late twenties).
PLOT: A teenage girl involved in the abstinence movement discovers that she has an unusual mutation—teeth hidden inside her vagina, which clamp down on intruders.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s got an odd little premise, but not enough bite (c’mon, you had to see that one coming.)
COMMENTS: If you’re going to make a film about a girl who discovers she has ravenous teeth inside her vagina—you know, a poonfang flick—you have a serious decision to make about tone. The concept is so ridiculous that it can’t be done realistically: the best you could do would be to make it into a sci-fi version of a “disease of the week” movie. Writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein chooses to play the concept (mostly) as a straight horror movie. Since the other possibility would be to go for a horror/comedy hybrid that would inevitably degenerate into juvenile genitalia jokes, his choice seems like it should be the correct one; but based on the results here, I’m not so sure this material wouldn’t have played better with more icky genital wackiness (a la Bad Biology). Teeth is technically well-made and benefits greatly from an all-in performance by Heather Graham lookalike Jess Weixler as Dawn, who undertakes a sexually confused journey from idealistic prude to reluctant predator. But the way Teeth handles the inherent absurdity of its situation is problematic. There are no real scares—though prosthetic penises provide some gross-out moments—but there are no big laughs either. It’s impossible to be horrified by the girl’s ridiculous condition, and only slightly easier to be amused. You might involuntarily guffaw when young Dawn decides to visit a gynecologist (“I think their might be something weird going on inside”) rather than a dentist. Some may find the straight-faced parody of the teen abstinence movement in the first act mildly amusing. The movie also hits all the b-movie monster movie cliches, like overdramatic musical cues at the moment of revelation and a cutaway to a forensic scientist providing stilted explication to an investigating detective, although those segments play as much as homage as satire. The film’s message about the patriarchy’s fear of female sexuality is pure symbolism 101; its implication that all men are potential rapists may strike some as offensive (although this feature may result more from the awkward demands of the plot than from any anti-male ideology). While it would make good copy to quip that movie’s shock and comedy aspirations merge about as well as teeth and vaginas, that’s not really the case. Teeth isn’t a triumph, but nor is it a disaster—which is a real problem for critics when trying to discuss a movie that offers so many opportunities for dentition related puns. You can’t imagine how many reviewers were secretly hoping this movie would be a disaster so that they could be the first to quip “Teeth bites” or “the rotten Teeth should be yanked.”
It’s worth noting once more that Jess Weixler’s portrayal of troubled innocence is a key to making Teeth work to the extent it does. With a lesser actress in the role, the film might have ended up as pure dreck. The 2007 Sundance Film Festival jury agreed, honoring Weixler with a special jury award for “dramatic acting.”
(This movie was nominated for review by Mr. Worf, who described it as “[p]art dark comedy, part horror film. Becoming a young woman is tough, especially for Dawn who is ‘very different.'”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
“If there’s something you don’t like, don’t keep to the rules – break them. I’m an enemy of stupidity and simple-mindedness in both men and women and I have rid my living space of these traits.”–Vera Chytilová in a 2000 interview with The Guardian
FEATURING: Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová, Jan Klusák
PLOT: Two doll-like young women in bikinis theorize that because the entire world is becoming spoiled, they will be spoiled too. They set off on a series of anarchic adventures, many of which involve them permitting old men to take them to expensive dinners. Their surreal, sexy excursions are interrupted by Dadaist collages and sudden changes of film stock, and climax in a slapstick pie fight.
Although Daisies is frequently interpreted as a feminist statement, director Vera Chytilová denied that was her intent and preferred to describe the movie as “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce.”
Writer Ester Krumbachová co-scripted the screenplays for both Daisies and Report and also designed the sets and costumes for Daisies.
The Czechoslovakian censors banned Daisies in 1967 (at the same meeting in which they banned Jan Nemec’s overtly political A Report on the Party and Guests). Chytilová made one more feature in 1969, the equally surreal We Eat the Fruit of the Trees of Paradise, after which she was forbidden to make any more films for six years until she successfully appealed the government ban on her work.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Marie II (I think; the blond one with the circlet of wildflowers) modestly trying to hide her nudity behind her suitor’s butterfly cases is an image that’s so highly charged it graces every DVD cover. The picture perfectly encapsulates Daisies‘ knowingly naughty innocence.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching the bright colors and bratty joie de vivre of Marie I and II as
Short clip from Daisies
they slash and burn their way through square society, cutting up phallic symbols and the film stock itself with scissors, it’s hard to believe that Daisies wasn’t produced under the influence of drugs. Made a year before and half a world away from San Francisco’s Summer of Love, this proto-flower power film nonetheless captures the anarchic spirit of Sixties psychedelia; it’s a relic from an alternate universe populated by sexy Czech hippy chicks with serious cases of the munchies. Alternately described as a feminist manifesto, a consumerist satire, and a Dadaist collage, it seems that no one—possibly including the director herself—is quite clear on what Daisies is supposed to be about. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t.
PLOT: A widow performs chores around her apartment and prostitutes herself in the afternoons.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its belabored 3+ hours (!) of a woman doing dull daily chores in long static real time takes, Jeanne Dielman is an example of how a movie can essentially swallow its own tail, achieving a level of surreality by emphasizing ordinariness and normality to an absurd degree. Like Andy Warhol’s “Sleep,” this deliberate experiment in extended boredom serves a purpose in the film universe; it’s just that that purpose isn’t to be watched by a normal human audience.
COMMENTS: When I read critics rave about Jeanne Dielman, I sometimes feel like I’m scanning reviews from the Bizarro World Times, dispatches from an alternate universe where up is down and audiences are enthralled by watching women shop for buttons and cook meatloaf for hours on end. (Vincent Canby’s claim that the frumped-up Delphine Seyrig “has never looked more beautiful” than in this film doesn’t help counter that impression that every review of the film was written on Opposite Day). It’s not that Akerman’s movie is a fraud or a failure. According to its experimental goal of exploring mundanity to its absolute limit, it’s a success, one that, for obvious reasons, other directors have rarely sought to repeat. But Jeanne Dielman is a formal exercise that no one other than a theoretician could love: we can’t bond with its affectless characters, its punishing three hour running time is a blunt weapon used to hammer home its hopeless message, and frankly, it’s just no fun. Watching this movie isn’t just taking your cultural vegetables, it’s gagging down a spoonful of cultural castor oil. Jeane Dielman‘s high artistic intent and ridiculous integrity of vision are too powerful to give the film a “beware” rating, but this is a movie that’s better read about than watched; heck, even Mlle. Dielman’s son would rather read than act in the movie. On its release the movie was adopted by feminists as a landmark statement on the crushing boredom of “women’s work,” but it’s not (and Akerman herself never claimed it was). That interpretation would require that the men and the working women in the movie—the son, the postal clerk, the waitress—were depicted as living lives of glamor compared to housefrau Jeanne. Rather, the film paints the entire adult world (or at least the “bourgeois” world) as morbidly dull: the only human beings shown enjoying any aspect of life in the film are children briefly seen running and playing in the street. The universal and almost unqualified praise for Akerman’s avant-garde oddity—which bludgeons the concept of “entertainment” with the same subtlety and affection as John Waters did for the concept of “taste” in Pink Flamingos—seems like it might make a great case study for a 20th century edition of “Extraordinary Aesthetic Delusions and the Madness of Critics.” For those who crave such things, a similar modern ennuiscape was sketched earlier, but with greater economy and magic, by Marco Ferreri in Dillinger is Dead.
After the marketing success of a line of toys based on Star Wars characters, figurines based on popular movies became huge sellers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Obviously not every toy company could afford to license a top-of-the-line property like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles posable action figure was almost certainly the most ill-advised attempt to cash in on the fad. I can still hear the radio spots created to coincide with the movie’s 1983 U.S. release: “Your Jeanne Dielman action figure makes coffee, entertains ‘gentleman callers,’ eats in stony silence, or just sits and stares at the wall, just like international screen icon Delphine Seyrig! For extra authenticity, the molded plastic face is incapable of expression. WARNING: to avoid risk of catatonia, toy should not be played with for more than three hours at a setting. Potato peeler and scissors sold separately.”
FEATURING: Ewelina Guzik, Sven Pippig, Sabine Timoteo, Elisabeth Orth
PLOT: A whimsical young woman brimming with optimism moves breezily through her hometown in Switzerland, picking up new friends Werwen (Sven Pippig)—a sickly momma’s boy—and Edna (Sabine Timoteo)—a cross-dressing gardener—along the way. The trio’s mission is to teach others to live without fear through experimental color hypnosis.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Pepperminta is a creative, experimental, singular film that defies standard classification. It is at once funny, thought-provoking, insightful, fanciful, sexual, and wistful; it contains memorable visuals, bizarre characters, impromptu musical numbers, and flashes of complete fantasy. It’s wonderfully weird, to be sure, but its sentimentality and naive perspective can be cloying and alienating for some audiences.
COMMENTS: Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist is known for saturated colors and themes of harmony and sensuality in her short works. Pepperminta marks her first foray into feature-length narrative film, allowing her to expand upon these concepts in a more accessible manner. Inspired by Pippi Longstocking, the story is a fantastical urban adventure set in a magical realist universe that’s open to Utopian ideas, and the central character is unflappable in her quest to bring joy, beauty, and strength to everyone she meets. Pepperminta transforms the souls of those she chooses to be a part of her mission, healing them with flowers, touch, music, and contagious confidence. She believes that through certain combinations of color a person’s outlook can be altered, and demonstrates this in several wacky encounters.
Pepperminta is primarily driven by its mysterious but likable characters. The title character is quick-to-smile, red-haired, freckled, and feels completely at ease in her own body. She wins others over to her side with unshakable kindness, even if her weirdness confuses most people at first. Werwen is shy, middle-aged, and allergic to everything; he easily falls in love with Pepperminta, most likely because she’s the first girl with whom he’s interacted. With her help he conquers his fear of the outside world bred by his overprotective mother. Edna is taciturn and serious-minded, slowly released from her hard outer shell as she opens herself up to her new friends, even tapping into the magical aspects of Pepperminta’s personality. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: PEPPERMINTA →
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