Tag Archives: Freak

DAVID LYNCH’S THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

Critics and audiences were surprised by ‘s Elephant Man (1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear, The Straight Story).

The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic,  writing that the death of Joseph Merrick[1] was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film by or . Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, is entirely artifice.

Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by ‘s nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is ‘s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.

Wendy Hiller as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead, and as the hospital’s Governor Carr-Gomm are equally effective. The film is hampered, however, by the predictable hammy acting of Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes and, surprisingly, by Anne Bancroft’s superficial performance as upper-class Shakespearean actress Madge Kendal.

Still from The Elephant Man (1980)

Like the monster of ‘s Frankenstein (1931), Merrick is the protagonist in Lynch’s film. Set in turn of the century London, Treves rescues Merrick from the cruel Mr. Bytes, who regularly beats his freak. To his astonishment, Treves discovers that Merrick is both cultured and genteel.  After Carr-Gom’s eventual approval, both Treves and Mothershead care for Merrick until his death.

Lynch says quite a bit about class distinction and pulls no punches. The lower-class, uneducated masses are not spared simply because they are destitute. Indeed, Lynch depicts them as prone to barbarism. Nor does the film congratulate the aristocracy: as Mothershead points out, “we are exhibiting Merrick all over gain.”

In lesser hands, The Elephant Man could have easily been preachy, overtly sentimental (think late Chaplin) or caved into a melodramatic crescendo (Think Spielberg). Instead, Hurt’s performance breaks through Christopher Tucker’s ingenious makeup. Ultimately, it is that portrayal which we come away with. That Lynch never allows aesthetics to impede upon the soul of the film is a testament to his craftsmanship.

  1. The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film. []

CAPSULE: THROUGH THE WEEPING GLASS (2011)

On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: This brief film essay contemplates various medical misfortunes and wonders in the framework of an often unsettling visit to the Mütter Museum. Exploring conditions ranging from Fibrodysplasia Ossificus Progressiva to conjoined twin-hood, Through the Weeping Glass examines anomalous conditions, creepy medical devices, and the sometimes unnatural nature of being human.

Still from Through the Weeping Glass (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As documentaries go, this is an unnerving one whose subject matter is investigated with hazy-to-sharp focus, super-imposition, and eerie recreations of the backstories. However, the movie maintains a disciplined technique, providing a glimpse at the nastiness of medical phenomena through history that is easy to follow—as unpleasant as that proves to be at times.

COMMENTS: “No child ever imagines the unimaginable: that he will end up as a skeleton.” So begins our visit to Philadelphia’s museum of medical oddities. The sweet, soft-spoken narration provided by Derek Jacobi (“I, Claudius,” “Brother Cadfael”) sets things up with a twist: naturally everyone becomes a skeleton eventually, as death comes to us all. However, the seemingly mundane words quickly get sinister when the case of Harry Eastlack is explored. Harry injured himself as a child, fracturing his leg while playing with his sister. The bone healed, and then kept growing. Ultimately, his skeleton developed a further skeleton around itself, and we are informed, “in the end, [he] could only move [his] lips.”

By the beginning of the past decade, the Quay brothers had long established themselves as the wizards of stop-motion animation. One of their passions, however, has always been “exotic arcana” (so sayeth the pamphlet accompanying their recent anthology), and their piece on the Mütter Museum and its contents marks the first time the brothers ever made a movie stateside. “Weeping Glass” features few of the otherworldly flourishes that mark their main body of work—most notably altering of portraits’ eyes by giving them an ominous, forlorn sheen—but the camera technique and soundscape summon the unsettling vibe that permeates their oeuvre. Focus on objects shimmers from sharp to blurry, tracking shots are choppy and often pursued at unlikely eye levels, and an animation of sorts is provided by the super-imposition of hands when pre-16th century texts and pre-20th century medical devices are displayed.

The oddest achievement the brothers can claim with this documentary is their uncanny knack to ride on the darker side of the line separating creepy and cheesy. The jump cuts between alarming images are often accompanied by the dissonant, clanking score one would expect to find in the lazier varieties of horror movie. Though they are no doubt helped by the fact that what’s on display would be unsettling no matter how presented, the Quays still impress by forcing the viewer to realize, “oh, I know they’re just trying to make me addled. Dear Lord, it’s working.”

By the end of “Through the Weeping Glass,” you will not only learn about the tragic case of Harry Eastlack, but also catch glimpses of a man with a pillow-sized tumor, get a peak at both the Hyrtl skull collection (139 specimens, each with a brief history of the owner written thereon) and Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of swallowed objects (over 2,300 pins, game pieces, and even a “Perfect Attendance” badge), and finish off with a couple exchanging their “…’til death do us part” wedding vows in the presence of the plaster cast bodies of the famed “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng. “Through the Weeping Glass” is a disquieting piece, but the Quays’ direction and Jacobi’s nuanced voice-over inject it with a subversive sense of humor. This late example of the Pennsylvania boys’ work is very informative, highly watchable, and delightfully grotesque.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…rare is the non-fiction film that through its style, design and intent properly matches the tropes of the fictional horror flick. And perhaps this creature is so rare that only one exists: Through the Weeping Glass…”–Mike Everleth, Underground Film Journal (contemporaneous)

CURTIS HARRINGTON’S NIGHT TIDE (1961)

Curtis Harrington was an authentic cineaste whose early work was entirely experimental. Among the films he worked on before branching out on his own (as an actor and a cinematographer) were ‘s Puce Moment (1949) and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Reportedly, he was involved with , and certainly sang her praises throughout his life. Rather than continuing in the avant-garde vein, Harrington’s first feature film was the nightmarish cult oddity Night Tide (1961). It’s been dubbed a horror film, but the label isn’t entirely adequate. Elements of , , , and are like layered slivers in this ethereal mermaid opus.

Night Tide was also the late ‘s first feature film. So cemented is his psychotic reputation from films like Blue Velvet (1986) and River’s Edge (1986) that his role here as a clean cut all-American boy under the spell of an aquatic succubus might be a little disconcerting. Yet, Hopper brings an element of vulnerability and pathos to his lonely sailor that makes him ideally cast as one lovestruck for the mermaid of the full moon, and helps make Night Tide deserving of its reputation as a quirky original.

In its subtlety and evocative atmosphere Night Tide owes most to Cat People (1942). While Linda Lawson, very effective in the role of Mora, is not quite in the league of Simone Simon, Hopper is far more convincing and sympathetic than Kent Smith was in the Lewton production. Deren’s mystical influence ebbs through Harrington’s script, his cinematography and the overall milieu. As much as Harrington tried to sell his film as a commercial thriller, his previous work shaped Night Tide, stamped it as unorthodox, and certainly hurt its commercial viability.

Still from Night Tide (1961)While on leave, Johnny (Hopper), looking for female companionship, roams through a Venice Beach carnival and meets the mysterious Mora (Lawson) at a jazz bar. Strangely enough, we never see Johnny with other sailors. He only seems a sailor because we are told he is one. Otherwise, he is an outsider, dislocated in the world, and draws to another misfit soul in Mora (which makes more sense than the bourgeoisie Oliver being attracted to exotic Irena in the afore mentioned Cat People). Mora plays a mermaid in a sideshow exhibit in the carnival. Her employer is her adoptive father, Captain Sam (Gavin Muir). Johnny’s relationship with Mora is replete with obstacles, the biggest being Mora’s latent belief that she turns into a mermaid during the fill moon. Sam reveals to Johnny that he found Mora on a Mediterranean Island. Sam’s explanation is intentionally vague and masks incestuous desire. Ellen (Luana Anders, with a cup of coffee seemingly glued to her hand), is an employee of the carnival and clearly drawn and attracted to Johnny. But,  Ellen’s  concern for Johnny’s welfare is foremost, since two of Mora’s former boyfriends died of mysterious circumstances. With one beguiling exception, Night Tide is revealed to be entirely psychological.

That one exception is the bizarre presence of one of Mora’s “Sea People.” This presence is intentionally never explained, and even contradicts the revelations of the film. The casting of the Sea Witch is intriguingly layered: she is played by Marjorie Cameron, who happened to be a real life disciple of . The remaining casting sells the film: Hopper, Lawson, Anders, and Muir are superb in their eccentric roles. Harrington’s camera captures them repeatedly in cerebral close-ups.

There has been renewed interest in Harrington lately. Flicker Alley has recently released “The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection“, and Night Tide is receiving a Blu-ray release in October.

CAPSULE: RETARD-O-TRON III (2013)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Roelwapper (editor)

FEATURING: Merrill Howard Kaelin (archival)

PLOT: A collection of grotesque video oddities, crazy b-movie clips, fetish porn, shock pieces, and public access embarrassments.

Still from Retard-O-Tron III

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even if it weren’t primarily focused on the sick instead of the weird, there isn’t a high enough percentage of original material (maybe 10-15%?) in this mixtape to qualify for the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: In my review of Sweet Movie I wrote, “…no one wants to see Sweet Movie for its political philosophy. We want to see beautiful women writhing nude in liquid chocolate, gold-plated penises, and uninhibited orgies that go far beyond our deepest desires.” Retard-O-Tron embraces that shortsighted anti-philosophy wholeheartedly, and to prove it they include, among other atrocities, a clip from Sweet Movie‘s food fight/orgy with bald anarchists spitting pasta on each other and puking while pretty Carole Laure watches on in a catatonic daze. This mixtape isn’t pitched so much as a movie or an artistic endeavor as it is a dare, like peeking at a hobo’s rotting corpse discovered under a bridge. For those who think they’ve seen everything and can’t get it up for regular sleaze anymore, here’s your chance to gaze at humanity at its filthiest and most debased, with puke porn, geriatric porn, midget porn, scat porn, fake bestiality porn, stupid people being exploited for your amusement, and general nastiness. Although it’s XXX-rated, the explicit fetish parts are generally hit fast rather than lingered over, because the movie aims to arouse your disgust, not your lust. Granted, it’s not all bad: a good portion of the offerings are actually absurd/weird rather than sick/depraved. Alongside Sweet Movie, readers of this site may also recognize surreal body horror clips from Funky Forest and insane eyeball-kaiju battles from Big Man Japan among the cooler, tamer bits. B-movie madness is also a big running theme; there is out-of-context oddness from Indonesian fantasy movies, and I recognized scenes from Lou Ferrigno’s Hercules, the golf-cart chase from Space Mutiny, and some “gotcha!” scenes from Night of the Demons 2 amidst the debris. One of the most unintentionally nightmarish segments comes courtesy of notorious Christian scare-film preacher Estus Pirkle (If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?), who describes paradise in ridiculously materialistic terms (he claims the heavenly city is fourteen-hundred times larger than New York City) before trotting out a dwarf woman confined to a wheelchair who belts out a surprisingly assured (if high-pitched) gospel number. The depressing, washed-out color, bizarre theology, and wide lapels on a powder blue suit mark this sermon as something that seems like it could only originate from the alternate reality of 1970s post-late show UHF filler. Although some of the video is edited into montages or otherwise altered (the wittiest bit is an anus superimposed over Tom Cruise’s face), for the most part the material is presented as is, in apparently random order. Although the anarchic flow of the material may be intentional—it keeps you off guard, and you’re always dreading that the next clip will come from a snuff film—it makes you long for the artistry of more artistically inclined found-footage specialists , who arrange their edits thematically and with a satirical vision in mind.

Besides porn and B-movies, the other major source of footage is cable access TV clips; these often fall flat (how many bad soul singers or Christian folksingers can you tolerate?) But public access also lends Retard-O-Tron III its most problematic segments, those featuring mentally disabled chef Merrill Howard Kaelin, who hosted an unhygienic amateur cooking show where he ruined dishes while muttering to himself and occasionally drifting off into deranged impressions and childlike bouts of giggling. That wouldn’t be too bad or offensive in itself, if Kealin were just left to do his thing and we were left to observe him as a case study in eccentricity. What’s upsetting is the sarcastic introductory narration supplied by the Retard-O-Tron staff: “Buried below the pedestrian boob could be found an underlying seething fury, a fury focused at the very curse of living and all that it had done to wrong and frustrate his character. There is soul, grace and power in each deliberate movement, in each syllable…”. Was this ironic commentary added because the mixtape makers really think it’s funny and the natural reaction to Kaelin’s antics? Or did they feel that the audience needed permission from an authority figure (the eloquent narrator) to allow themselves to lighten up and laugh at the disabled? Or did they think that just the Kaelin footage alone was insufficiently shocking, and it needed to be punched up with the taboo-breaking outrage of mocking the mentally deficient? None of the possibilities are flattering, and the inclusion of this commentary (which happens six minutes into the movie) reveals a hopelessly callous attitude that poisons everything that comes after. The entire project is thereafter infected with a heartless, sociopathic tinge that goes beyond the merely juvenile persona they hope to project. The essential problem with getting hooked on the shock aesthetic for its own sake is that once you’ve liberated yourself from the irrational “bourgeois” social restraints, you’ve got no way left to get your kicks except by shattering the necessary and rational ones, like respect for the less fortunate. Retard-O-Tron III‘s unthinking rejection of basic human empathy is what earns it its “beware” rating. With a few snips, it might have been a compilation 366 could endorse, if not champion; but although I can overlook (if not forget, dammit) the scene of a pretty Japanese woman vomiting dinner up all over her date’s upraised face, I can’t condone adolescent cruelty masquerading as wit.

Retard-O-Tron III can be bought from Cinema Sewer. It’s understood that the description above, and the “beware” rating, will tempt many of you to try this out. Hey, it’s your soul—you want to kill it, it’s none of my business.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…mind-melting mixtape madness… can you stomach the avalanche of sordid perversion and perpetual uneasy feeling this collection posits?”–Lunchmeat’s VHS Blog

(This movie was nominated for review by Roel N [the creator]. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

DISCLAIMER: A copy of this movie was provided by the distributor for review.

CAPSULE: FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Shainberg

FEATURING: , , Ty Burrell

PLOT: Diane Arbus is an artistically repressed housewife whose creativity is stirred when a circus freak moves upstairs.

Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although I hesitate to rule any movie that includes Nicole Kidman shaving a wolfman off the list of the weirdest movies ever made, the fact is that the disappointing Fur never really flies.

COMMENTS: While I admire the chutzpah behind the concept of an “imaginary portrait” that, as the prologue explains, seeks to convey the “inner experience” of the artist, I’m afraid Fur doesn’t deliver the goods. Fur never really delves into Diane Arbus’ inner experience, instead choosing to metaphorize it as a Beauty and the Beast romantic fantasy that ends up feeling surprisingly conventional, given the (deliberately) ridiculous premise. That premise involves the future famous photographer (a wan and lovely Nicole Kidman) as a frustrated housewife who becomes obsessed with her new upstairs neighbor who always wears a mask in public and clogs her drains with wads of hair. The stranger is soon revealed to be Lionel, played by an extra-downy Robert Downey, Jr., and he serves as a White Rabbit that leads Diane/Alice down a rabbit hole into a Wonderland of carnivalesque visions. (The “Alice in Wonderland” references are heavy during the first Platonic night Arbus spends in his lair, including a tiny door, a note instructing her to drink a cup of tea, and even actual shots of a white rabbit). Fur gets its surrealistic impulses out of the way in that initial meeting between Diane and Lionel, which segues into Arbus’ dreams, broken up by establishing conversations with the always-in-control Lionel. Diane plans to shoot a portrait of her neighbor as her first artistic venture into photography, but rather than setting up a tripod, she spends more and more time gadding about Manhattan with Lionel, who introduces her to his glamorous cadre of freaks and outsiders that includes an armless woman, a prostitute, an undertaker, a transvestite, and, naturally, dwarfs, dwarfs, dwarfs! Her long-suffering and very devoted husband Allan understandably grows jealous at her absorption into Lionel’s world—I laughed out loud when, late in the film, he grows a thick beard to try to compete with Lionel’s locks! Although Downey’s “sensitive” performance received praise in some quarters, I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the character. For someone who had been shunned due to his looks for his entire life, Lionel comes across as too confident a seducer of the submissive Diane. He’s far too cocky for a guy who looks like a cocker spaniel. The movie builds to a truly unsatisfying consummation that senselessly defangs—er, defurs—Lionel’s deformity, which is ironically the opposite of what Arbus’ photographs did to their subjects. Even accepting Lionel not as a real character but as the personification of the allure of the grotesque, Fur doesn’t give us much insight into Diane’s passion. Creativity it is simply analogized to romance, and left at that. We never get any sense of the fire Arbus must have had for her work, only her ardor for a symbol. Although I’m no fan of biopics and their enslavement to historical fact, I think that in Arbus’ case a more traditional, non-imaginary portrait may have served its subject better. Or, maybe just a portrait with more imagination.

Diane’s husband Allan Arbus, played here by Ty Burrell, is the same Allan Arbus who starred in Greaser’s Palace and other movies. He did not take up acting until after Diane left him to follow the photography muse. He even appeared in two films with the young Robert Downey, Jr.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…far too impressed with its own weirdness.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: FREAKED (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stern, Alex Winter

FEATURING: Alex Winter, , Megan Ward, Michael Stoyanov, William Sadler, Brooke Shields, Bobcat Goldthwait, Morgan Fairchild, Mr. T,  (uncredited), Larry “Bud” Melman

PLOT: A sleazy Hollywood actor is hired by an evil corporation to go to South America where he is immediately kidnapped by a freak show owner who transforms him and his friends into Hideous Mutant Freekz.

Still from Freaked (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Freaked is a very weird movie, its weirdness stems more from the “anything goes” school of gonzo comedy. It’s like Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine come to life with the aesthetic sensibility of a Robert Williams painting. Heck, maybe it should make the List.

COMMENTS: Freaked is a fine example of a small wave of bizarre films that made their way into theaters in the early 1990s. Too strange for the mainstream and too unpolished for the art houses, most of these movies were dumped into a few theaters with no fanfare and only found later life on VHS, cable or DVD, if even then. Other examples include Rubin and Ed (1991) and the Certified Weird The Dark Backward (1991).

Originally titled “Hideous Mutant Freekz,” Freaked was the brainchild of directors Tom Stern and Alex Winter, who were then coming off their short-lived sketch comedy show The Idiot Box. Winter, who is still most well known as being half of the duo Bill & Ted, also stars as the lead, Ricky Coogin.

That this is a ’90s affair should be immediately obvious from the opening, which features some of the most eye-blistering claymation you will ever see, set to the tune of a Henry Rollins song. From there we jump right into the plot, which involves ex-teen heartthrob Ricky Coogin being romanced by the evil EES Corporation (“Everything Except Shoes”) to act as their spokesperson in South America for their product Zygrot 24. After a few gags and character introductions, the movie finds itself in the freak show fun by Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid). Skuggs immediately kidnaps our protagonists and transforms them into monstrosities by using (surprise!) Zygrot 24.

The freak show camp is really the heart of the film. In fact, the sequence introducing the freaks may give you the best sense of the movie: it’s done using the set-up for the game show Hollywood Squares, complete with the skeleton of Paul Lynde as center square. Other freaks include the Worm, Sockhead (who has a sock-puppet for a head), Mr. T as the Bearded Lady, and so on.

What separates this film from other mile-a-minute comedies, and makes it most memorable as weird, is the density and bizarreness of its gags. Like a comic book, every frame of the film is packed with jokes that may go completely unnoticed upon first viewing. On top of that, the gags are just strange piled upon strange. For example, Coogin’s first escape attempt, which involves a milkman and a turd shaped like a naked Kim Basinger, is thwarted by a pair of giant Rastafarian eyeballs with machine-guns. Why? Because that’s always funny.

At this point I should mention the entire movie is told in flashback during a talk show hosted by none other than Brooke Shields.

This is a pretty great movie, and of the funniest unknown movies to make its way out of the ‘90s. It’s a shame that it died an ignoble and unsupported death, but it’s not clear that a wider release would have enabled the film to find an audience either. Freaked clearly isn’t for everybody. However, for those whom it is for (“Mad” Magazine-addicts, kids who grew up with “Big Daddy” Roth model kits, C-list celebrity fans), it’s a love letter in animatronic clothing. If you can find it, it’s worth picking up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I suppose there could be some sort of subversive angle to all the madness on display here, but I suspect it’s just what happens when you get a bunch of hipsters too weird for their own good in a room together and ask them to come up with something funny.”–Keith Breese, AMC filmcritic.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: PASSION PLAY (2010)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Mitch Glazer

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A trumpet player discovers a woman with wings at a freak show while hiding out from a

Still from Passion Play (2010)

gangster who wants him dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because it’s the most predictable and obvious movie about a jazz trumpeter saving an angel from a gangster it would be possible to make.

COMMENTS:  There’s almost nothing that Passion Play gets right, starting with its pretentious, inappropriate title: if Mickey Rourke is a Christ figure, then I’m a sex symbol.  The scenario starts out promisingly enough, positioning itself in a twilight netherworld somewhere between film noir and fairy tale.  Junkie jazz musician Nate, who gets by providing bump ‘n grind accompaniment for strippers in pasties at the Dream Lounge, is seized by persons unknown and taken to the desert for summary execution.  After an incredible escape from certain death, he stumbles upon an equally improbable carnival that has pitched its tents in the middle of nowhere and where yokels pay a dollar to peep at a beautiful “angel” with eagle wings.  So far, your suspension of disbelief is strained but not broken, but then the movie goes too far: 59-year old Mickey Rourke, with his stringy unwashed hair falling in clumps around a face that looks like the beaten-up mug of an ex-boxer experimenting with Botox injections, knocks on Megan Fox’s trailer door, and she asks him in for a drink.  From there the movie just gets worse and worse, as the mobster who ordered Nate’s execution also becomes obsessed with Fox and the pic turns into a conventional, obvious and boring love-triangle that begs us to care whether angelic Megan Fox will choose old, sleazy, poor Mickey Rourke or old, sleazy, rich Bill Murray.  Rourke, whose look and backstory are modeled on Chet Baker in his heroin-ravaged final days, is acceptably gruff, and you’ll believe he shoots junk and sells out those dearest to him.  The fact that there’s nothing sympathetic or likable about his character is a serious problem, though.  Watching the sex scene between Rourke and Fox is guaranteed to make your skin crawl; wondering where she’s going to position her wings as they roll around on the hotel room bed isn’t the only thing that’s awkward about it.  “Happy” Shannon’s laid back, almost emotionless mien may have been a deliberate acting choice by Bill Murray to make his character seem cold and calculating, but in the context of a film this bad, it makes it look like he’s acting under protest.  You feel more sympathy for Fox as an actress than you do for her character; after starring in one awful movie after another, she tries to expand her horizons with an ambitious art film, but winds up in yet another bungled disaster (and this time, it’s not even her fault).  Passion Play‘s target audience seems to be creepy old guys who like to daydream that they’d have a shot at Megan Fox if only she had some sort of easily overlooked physical deformity.  So when I, as a creepy older guy who wouldn’t kick Ms. Fox out of bed if she sprouted wings, tell you that this movie sucks, it should carry extra weight.

Mickey Rourke made waves for openly criticizing Passion Play after its release, publicly calling it “terrible.”  I can’t say I disagree with him, but openly and proactively trashing your own film seems like the kind of classless move Passion Play‘s crummy trumpeter might make.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…though the movie is both too strange to take seriously and not weird enough to live up to [David] Lynch’s macabre surrealism, you have to credit writer-director Mitch Glazer (co-author of ‘Scrooged’) for being daring.”–Kyle Smith, New York Post (contemporaneous)

TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent Tod Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning).  It is  (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of Souls.”  Originally titled  “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the most bizarre productions to emerge from  silent cinema, nearly on par with the director’s The Unknown from the same year.

John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions.  A character with the name of an animal is a frequent Browning trademark, and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both the character and the actor.  The Show amounted to punishment for star Gilbert, who had made what turned out to be a fatal error.  When co-star and fiancee Greta Garbo failed to show up at their planned wedding, Gilbert was left humiliated at the altar, where studio boss Louis B. Mayer made a loud derogatory remark for all to hear.  Gilbert responded by thrashing Mayer.  Mayer swore revenge, vowing to destroy Gilbert’s career, regardless of cost (at the time Gilbert was the highest paid star in Hollywood).  Mayer’s revenge began here and climaxed with the coming of sound, when he reportedly had the actor’s recorded dialogue manipulated to wreck Gilbert’s voice and career.  Whether Mayer’s tinkering with Gilbert’s voice is legendary or not, Mayer did intentionally  set out to give Gilbert increasingly unflattering roles, and the consequences were devastating for Gilbert.  Having fallen so far, so fast, Gilbert took to excessive drink.  He actually had a  fine voice and starred in a few sound films, including Tod Browning’s Fast Workers (1933) and with Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) (she insisted on Gilbert, over Mayer’s strenuous objections).  Gilbert died forgotten at 37 in 1936, and became the inspiration for the Norman Maine character in a Star is Born (1937).  The Show was the first film after Gilbert’s aborted wedding incident, and instead of playing his usual role of swashbuckling matinee idol, Gilbert is cast as a cocky lecher.

Still from The Show (1927)Cock Robin is the barker for a Hungarian carnival, dazzling the ladies and bilking them of their hard earned silver.  He ushers patrons in to the  show with the help of “The Living Hand of Cleopatra,” a disembodied hand akin to Thing from “The Addams Family.”  Among Cock’s unholy trio of mutilated-below-the-waist attractions is ‘Zela, the Half Lady.’ “Believe me boys, there are no cold feet here to bother you!”  Zela is followed by ‘Arachnadia! The Human Spider!,’ a heavily mascaraed, disembodied head in a web (played Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)

TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era.  Suspend disbelief and step into the carnival of the absurd.  The Unknown is the ebony carousel of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney oeuvre, the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized.  This is a film uniquely of its creators’ time, place and psychosis and, therefore, it is an entirely idiosyncratic work of art, which has never been remotely mimicked, nor could it be.  That it was made at MGM borders on the miraculous, or the delightfully ridiculous, but then this was an era of exploratory boundaries, even at the big studios (again, the risk-taking Irving Thalberg produced).

“There is a story they tell in old Madrid.  The story, they say is true.”  So opens the tale of “Alonzo, the Armless.”  Browning spins his yarn like a seasoned barker at the Big Top of a gypsy circus where “the Sensation of Sensations! The Wonder of Wonders!,” Alonzo (Lon Chaney), the Armless, throws knives, with his feet, at the object of his secret affection, Nanon (an 18 year old Joan Crawford).

Illusions abound.  Alonzo  is actually a double-thumbed killer on the lam.  With the aid of a straight jacket and midget assistant Cojo (John George, who worked with Browning in Outside the Law [1920]), Alonzo feigns his handicap and performs the facade of one mutilated.

In addition evading the law and securing employment, Alonzo’s act of the armless wonder benefits him greatly.  Nanon has a hysterical, obsessive repulsion to the very touch of a man’s arms.   She calls on the Almighty to take away the accursed hands of all men.  Nanon vents histrionic, sexual anxiety to Alonzo every time Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) puts his vile hands upon her.  Alonzo, ever the performer, simulates expressed sympathy, although his affection for Nanon is the one thing about Alonzo that is genuine.

Still from The Unknown (1927)Alonzo, secretly venting enmity, advises Malabar on how to win Nanon.  It is, of course, intentional ill-advice which will eventually karmically rebound and become genuine ill-advice for Alonzo. Malabar’s arms are muscled and strong, compared to Alonzo’s armless torso, or compared to Alonzo’s deformed, hidden double thumb—the very same double thumb which he used to strangle the ringmaster of Browning’s perverse milieu: Nanon’s sadistic Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)