PLOT: Sophia enlists the aid of occultist Joseph to perform a ritual to contact her dead son; isolated in a house in Wales, the result could end up costing them both their lives and souls.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a very good story involving magick (used and abused), shifting power dynamics, and ultimately grief and forgiveness. But despite the presence of the occult, the handling doesn’t qualify as “weird.”
COMMENTS: A Dark Song is a small masterpiece of that sub-genre referred to as “folk horror.” There are no big set pieces or jump scares to satisfy the casual horror film viewer, but rather the slow, creeping dread found in smaller films like those of Val Lewton, Let’sScare Jessica to Death, or British television works such as the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations. Song is a chamber piece with two main characters in an enclosed space, and its main asset is atmosphere.
It’s also notable in grounding its mystical elements into a mundane reality. Magick may indeed exist, but it’s not easy. The ritualism involved in their endeavor is stringent, very disciplined, and time-consuming… it’s work. Therefore when certain events start happening later in the film, it tilts the ambiguity that threads though the first part into definite occult territory.
Part of that ambiguity is in the relationship of Sophia and Joseph—which never descends into a romantic one, to the film’s credit—but does bring up observations on power and consent. One could consider their relationship as student and teacher (or adept and mentor), but an undercurrent suggests that Joseph may not be what he seems, and could just be taking advantage of Sophia. The story doesn’t degenerate into a simple battle of the sexes scenario due to the performances of the actors. Both characters aren’t entirely likeable, but Sophia is more developed. Joseph remains somewhat of a cipher: although he does have an authoritative weight, his motives remain unclear. He has the knowledge and also the arrogance of those who like to lord it over those without it, and he doesn’t hold himself to the standard that he demands from Sophia, which ends up determining his fate.
Sophia’s story—wanting to communicate with her dead son—is the driving force of the film. Her grief has brought her to this extreme, and she is quite willing to go further, which leads her to the point of choosing either salvation or damnation in the film’s final act.
FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, Micha Bergese, Tusse Silberg, David Warner
PLOT: An adolescent girl lies in her bed, dreaming feverishly. In her dream, she lives in a medieval town menaced by wolves, with a grandmother who tells her frightful stories about werewolves and warns her to “stay on the path.” One day, she is traveling through the woods to her grandmother’s house, and she meets a dashing older man on the road…
The film is based on Angela Carter’s three “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired werewolf stories collected in “The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories.” In 1980 Carter adapted these stories into a radio play titled “The Company of Wolves,” which became the basis for her screenplay collaboration with director Neil Jordan. She published her version of the screenplay, which differs slightly from the filmed version (due to the fact that some sequences proved too costly to shoot) in the collection “The Curious Room.”
Other than the wraparound sequences, the entire movie was filmed on a soundstage.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie where men (repeatedly) turn into wolves, it’s surprising that the most startling image occurs in a quiet moment. Rosaleen climbs a tree, finds a stork’s nest, and finds a mirror and a vial of lipstick nestled alongside the eggs. She applies the lipstick, looks in the mirror, and the eggs crack open to reveal tiny human figurines.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Egg babies; wolves at a wedding; Angela Lansbury’s ceramic head
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An adolescent girl is lost in a fever dream inhabited by suave beast men and mysterious symbols that both frighten and thrill her. Angela Carter’s Freudian spin on fairy tales takes the sanitized version of Little Red Riding Hood and gives it fangs.
FEATURING: Jackie Neyman Jones, Joe Warren, Danny McCarty, Elizabeth Redpath, Matt Rogers
PLOT: In this prequel to the notoriously bad cult film Manos: The Hands of Fate, we learn the origin of iconic characters the Master and Torgo.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Rise of Torgo is an often-striking addition to the Manos world, with several inventive and unique aspects that had potential, but ultimately its slavish devotion to the original and a plodding pace prevent it from being a satisfying prequel. It’s not good enough to be great and not terrible enough to be an entertaining “bad” film, falling somewhere between competent and ordinary.
COMMENTS: Manos: The Rise of Torgo faces two major concerns from the outset: one, it follows up an iconic cult film fifty-something years after the fact; and two, it purposefully sets out to make a “bad” movie. The first concern is similar to the dilemma faced by the recent follow up to 1982’s Blade Runner, Blade Runner2049, which I though was plagued by the weight of its highly influential predecessor and was most successful when it strayed from the source material. Similarly, Rise of Torgo is most engaging when building its own mythos, and least successful when recreating or reusing elements of the original film. Obviously there’s no comparison between the two franchises (Blade Runner vs. Manos) in terms of production value or popular success; I mention it only because of the comparable uneven mix of old and new elements, the considerable lengths between installments, and because both films feature actors from the original franchise.
The second concern arises when a competent filmmaker attempts to recreate the errors of people with no concept of how to turn out a polished, coherent product. The errors often feel forced or labored, and the schadenfreude derived from witnessing genuinely misguided filmmaking is replaced with boredom and irritation. The great “terrible” films like Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), Troll 2 (1990) or The Room (2003) were made by genuinely misguided filmmakers, outsiders like Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau who seem removed from ordinary human experience and can only write dialogue and cut footage together from their own strange impulses. They show instincts devoid of even the slightest knowledge of how ordinary human beings communicate, or of how filmmakers arrange footage to create meaning and coherence.
The original Manos brimmed with the kind of odd editing choices and bizarre dialogue that truly defines bad cinema. It featured twenty second shots of Torgo stumbling around with luggage, accompanied by his own music cue, alongside his tremulous delivery of lines like, “I meant no harm, Madam, I’ll protect you… I’ll protect you.” Director Harold Warren had no formal film training, and it shows, especially when a shot of the clapperboard is featured in scenes with the kissing couple. The amateur nature of the production is stamped throughout the exasperating length of the film.
Rise of Torgo’s auteur, David Roy, is clearly no slouch at film making. His shots are well composed, the color grading enhances elements for effect, and there are even special effects (admittedly cheesy ones, probably designed as such to fit the Manos universe). This is a capable filmmaker attempting to make a bad film, and as such a lot of the fun is taken out of the picture. What we get instead are elements of garbage woven through a competently produced picture.
Rise of Torgo gets off to a good, campy start, with an introduction to the Master and the God Manos (represented by Jackie Neyman Jones, the little girl from the original), presented as a floating head, like the ghost of Mufasa in The Lion King. We then learn the origins of Torgo’s birth, involving twin midwives (who later turn out to be his grandmothers) and a blessing from a cross-eyed gypsy. She is promptly jettisoned from the rest of the film and her presence never explained. All original and amusing “bad filmmaking” choices so far. A woman in the woods inexplicably sings about her love for goats, and given Torgo’s hinted-at satyr nature in the original film, we might even expect the two to meet and develop a romance. Sadly, at this point in the film Manos “call-backs” take over. The girl merely becomes a victim of the Master’s original caretaker, and an otherwise fresh, surreal characteristic goes unutilized.
The “Them” Torgo’s Mother speaks of is an interesting aspect thrown into his psychology, but ultimately becomes pointless in his transformation into the Master’s slave. That transformation arises from a combination of bullying and the power of Manos. The twin Grandmothers speak and move in sync, an interesting feature that remains merely a curiosity and fails to inform the story in any significant way. It’s a device that had potential, but ultimately falls to the necessity of sticking to the elements of The Hands of Fate. The film occasionally even fails to satisfy this requirement: Torgo doesn’t have the same quavering, tremulous voice as the original, not even after his transformation by Manos.
PLOT: Aided by Sooni, a lovelorn acrobat, Byung-goo abducts Kang, a pharmaceutical company executive, believing him to be a high-ranking agent of a group of aliens from Andromeda bent on eradicating the earth. As a pair of detectives close in on Byung-goo, the delusional man tortures the businessman in the basement of his remote cabin, hoping to force him to use his “royal DNA” to contact the prince of the Andromeda galaxy. Kang escapes but is recaptured and hobbled, and begins to play a psychological game with his tormentor, pretending to cooperate to avoid further injury.
Jang says the scenario for Save the Green Planet! was inspired by an Internet post suggesting Leonardo DiCaprio was an alien in combination with his fondness for (and dissatisfaction with) Stephen King’s Misery.
This was Joon-Hwan Jang’s debut feature. He has made two movies since, a crime feature and a historical drama, neither of have shown significant weirdness or drawn many eyeballs outside of South Korea.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Byung-goo’s homemade alien hazmat suit: a trash bag poncho with a modified miner’s helmet rigged with blinking gizmos (including a rear view mirror that bobbles up and down) of uncertain purpose and utility. The first time you see him outfitted in this garb, you know exactly who you’re dealing with.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: One bullet, one bee; ghost mom with meth; aliens did kill the dinosaurs
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The first two thirds are a demented genre mashup of sci-fi, comedy, horror, thriller, and action elements whose rambunctiousness is aimed squarely at midnight movie audiences. But it’s the final act, which shifts to an even madder perspective and goes so far as to outright steal scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—while still managing to feel original—that puts it over the top.
English-language trailer for Save the Green Planet!
“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.”–Revelations 11:18
PLOT: A writer and his wife live alone, rebuilding a house where the man used to live before it burned down. One day, a stranger shows up at their door and the husband invites him to stay, against the woman’s wishes. More uninvited guests arrive, first the family of the original man, and then hordes of the writer’s adoring fans, sowing complete chaos in the home just as the woman gives birth.
Darren Aronofsky says he wrote the first draft in “a fever dream” in just five days.
Per Aronofsky, 66 of the film’s 115 minutes are closeups of Jennifer Lawrence.
20th Century Fox passed on distributing the film due to a controversial scene.
The movie received a rare “F” rating on CinemaScore (which measures audience reactions). Fewer than 20 movies have ever received such a low score.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t mention the scene that makes the most impact for fear of spoiling your reaction. (You’ll know it when you see it). That leaves us looking for a second place image to fill this space; we’ll go with the vagina-shaped wound that develops out of a bloodstain on the house’s hardwood floor.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine-Seltzer; toilet heart; crowd-surfing baby
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Writer/director Aronofsky lets this movie go all to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene in particular that sent ’em packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood offering with an outsider’s beashness, transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Outraged moviegoers who came to see megastar Jennifer Lawrence’s horror film got a puzzling, punishing allegory instead. mother! was an all-too-rare “event movie” in the weird genre.
PLOT: The first thirty minutes cover the FBI investigation of the murder of Teresa Banks (an event referred to in the first season of “Twin Peaks”). The action then moves to the town of Twin Peaks, focusing on high school senior Laura Palmer, the beautiful homecoming queen who has a secret life as a cocaine addict and upscale prostitute. As her father begins acting strange and tensions inside her home grow, Laura goes to a “party” at a cabin in the woods, where tragedy strikes.
“Twin Peaks” is a massive franchise, covering two original televised seasons, this feature film, a revival series broadcast twenty-five years after cancellation, and even two novels by co-writer Mark Frost and a book version of “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” (credited to David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer). Our coverage is similarly scattered: read about the pilot here, the original series here, and the 2017 series here.
Lynch had originally planned for Laura Palmer’s murder to never be solved, so the television network’s decision to force the writers to reveal the killer or face cancellation in the second season was an outside force that changed the direction of the overall story.
Some of the actors in the TV series’ large cast either refused or were unable to reprise their roles for the feature film, the most significant of whom was Lara Flynn Boyle (who played Laura’s best friend Donna). Boyle was replaced by Moira Kelly. Series co-creator Mark Frost also disagreed on the direction Lynch was taking the “Twin Peaks” story, and declined to participate in the movie.
Over 90 minutes of additional footage was shot, including appearances by characters from the series who didn’t make it into the final product.
Lynch originally hoped to make two sequels which would pick up where the television series ended, but Fire Walk With Me‘s disappointing box office ended those plans.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The angel in the Red Room (although the curtains suddenly turn purple for this scene). It’s one of those tender moments Lynch likes to put in to remind his viewers that, no matter how much evil and perversion he throws onto the screen, he still unironically believes in the ultimate power of goodness, love, and salvation.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: The blue rose; Southern Bowie on security cam; garmonbozia
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “Twin Peaks” is an uneven franchise, ranging over a landscape that covers everything from soap opera to surrealism and quirky comedy to rustic perversion, and so it may be appropriate that Fire Walk With Me is an uneven movie. The feature film continuation of the story is packed with dream sequences, unexpected cameos, mystical characters, and bizarre symbolism (an Arm eating creamed corn?). It was a financial and critical flop whose unremittingly dark and obscuritan tone turned off both casual series fans and mainstream critics, but for better or worse, David Lynch defiantly tears his own way through the universe he dearly loves.
Original trailer for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
PLOT: A cardiologist’s odd relationship with a teenage boy reveals a secret about his past, and will lead him to a dilemma in the future.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Two-time Certified Weird director Giorgos Lanthimos never fails to deliver weirdness; it’s in his DNA. His first official stab at a horror movie is every bit as disturbing as you might hope—which is to say, every bit as disturbing as his comedies and dramas.
COMMENTS: The Killing of a Sacred Deer flips the script of The Lobster. That was a comedy with terrifying moments, while Deer is an unapologetic horror movie with a few funny bits (most of which come from blasé or inappropriate conversations about weighty or grotesque subjects). As is always the case with Lanthimos, what you notice first is the anti-acting acting style: the characters barely register emotions, and when they do express, say, marital tenderness, it’s strained, like they’re pod people trying to fake it to fool the humans. That’s the case here, where Steven, Colin Farrel’s cardiac surgeon, trudges through relationships with both Martin, a pleasant but mysterious teen boy, and his own family with the usual Lanthimos-imposed rigidity. This lack of humanity magnifies the mundanity of the family’s suburban existence. The drama is accented by heavy, obtrusive bursts of dissonant classical music (e.g., cue a Ligeti chord at the conclusion of mother/daughter conversation re: smartphones) to give it that ominous horror film feel. It sounds forced, but it’s effective; combined with the awkward interpersonal relations, the technique creates a real sense of dread that rises for nearly an hour before the first major revelation.
Despite the initially repressed thesping, an interesting thing happens in Deer. Delving into horror forces the director to allow his actors to reveal genuine feelings, however briefly. You can’t remain restrained and unreactive when faced with immediately horrific situations like mental or physical torture, however absurd the premise from which they flow might be. Farrell (and Kidman, but mainly Farrel) gets to play furious, frightened and bereaved here. The further into the plot they venture, the more emotions are unleashed, an unexpected progression that feels natural and satisfying.
Although this isn’t a thriller that depends on a twist, I still don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I think it will be more rewarding if the viewer is in the same position as Steven when Martin quickly and casually recites the rules of the game at a cafeteria. I will say that the tale involves a moral dilemma, of sorts. I also feel obliged to say that I found the final resolution unsatisfying, for reasons I can’t discuss in detail without crossing the border into spoiler territory. Let’s simply say that the way Lanthimos resolves the situation, though perhaps the only reasonable solution, allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for his choices—a surprising cop-out in a movie otherwise so uncompromising, both formally and in its cruelty.
Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, unknowingly killed a deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Angry, the goddess calmed the winds so that the fleets could not sail. To atone for his sin, she demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own beloved daughter, Iphigenia. Even though Steven’s daughter Kim got an “A” on her presentation on Iphigenia in class, it’s not necessary to know how that story ends (versions of the myth differ, anyway) to understand Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the title is intentional foreshadowing that lets you know you’re in for something approaching classical tragedy—and if you know your ancient Greeks, you know they liked their tragedy gruesome. So do modern Greeks. They also like it a little weird.
FEATURING: Andrew Divoff, Holly Fields, Chris Weber
PLOT: In a direct-to-video sequel (the first of three) an ancient evil genie (djinn) breaks free of his prison again, tries to conquer Earth with his rule-bound goal of unleashing all djinn onto humanity again, and gets shut down by a panicked, but barely resourceful, female protagonist again.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a color-by-numbers horror flick intended to thrill, but not challenge, lite-beer-chugging mall rats. It is so shrink-wrapped and pre-fabbed that if it were a microwavable meal the ingredients would begin with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Someday, the imaginative horror factory that is the Wes Craven enterprise may demand our attention on the List. But it is not this day, and this is certainly not the movie.
COMMENTS: The whole Wishmaster franchise is the kind of premise that a first-year creative writing student at community college would pounce on with joy, and an experienced fantasy writer would know not to touch with a ten-foot-pole. An evil genie (djinn—gesundheit!) is unleashed on the world with the power to grant humans wishes, but subject to his own malicious interpretations of the wording. Besides a few exceptions (he can’t destroy himself, or re-arrange the fabric of space-time), he has unlimited powers. Think of the potential! And that’s exactly the problem with these kinds of premises: no matter what you do to actualize that potential, it will never live up to what you COULD have done. It’s like having God as a character in your story: whatever the payoff, God ends up being a wimpy letdown, unless you play it for laughs with a lampshade upon this very limitation. Moral of the story: don’t bite off more than you can chew, i.e., by adding God, or nearly God-like, antagonists.
But since when did more ambition than capability ever slow franchise originator Wes Craven down? So, djinn are a race of evil angels starting from the dawn of creation, and the boss djinn, when freed, has the goal of unleashing all his kind to rule humanity. The catch is, to do so he has to grant three wishes for the unlucky human who releases him from his bottle/lamp/(or in this case) ruby red gem. Numerous legalistic restrictions apply, because God may have been reckless in creating these things, but he had some good lawyers to back Him up. It says right here in the D&D manual that the djinn may take the soul of any human he grants a wish to (more play-toys for his dungeon), and he may interpret the wish in whatever outlandishly gruesome way he pleases, no taksey-backsies. As you might guess, careless mumbling around an evil djinn never leads to a happy outcome, and the people in the Wishmaster universe make a (short) career out of saying the stupidest possible things and instantly getting punished for it. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Continue reading CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)→
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.”