Tag Archives: Horror

41. I CAN SEE YOU (2008)

“I CAN SEE YOU is a film about the thing that frightens me the most… my own mind… we as sentient human beings are completely at the mercy of an organ that we may never fully understand; an organ that, at the slightest malfunction, can throw our perception of reality into such chaos and confusion that we will never see or experience the world the same way again.”–Graham Reznick, from the Director’s Statement for I Can See You

DIRECTED BY: Graham Reznick

FEATURING: Ben Dickinson, Larry Fessenden,

PLOT:  Ben is a nearsighted, neurotic and painfully shy photographer/artist working for an advertising start-up firm looking to land a huge contract for the ClarActix corporation. The three twenty-something admen organize a camping trip to snap nature photos that can be used in the campaign.  At a campfire hootenanny, Ben meets a beautiful hippie girl he once had a crush on, and his awkward attempts to romance the free-spirited girl lead him to an internal breakdown that manifests itself in a series of unnerving surrealistic montages.

Still from I Can See You (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Graham Reznick accumulated over a dozen credits on low-budget films in the sound department before helming I Can See You, his first feature film.
  • I Can See You is the fifth in the “Scarefilx” series executive produced by Larry Fessenden (who also appears in the movie as the ClarActix spokesman).  According to its press release, the Scareflix series is “designed to exploit hungry new talent and inspire resourceful filmmakers to produce quality work through seat-of-the-pants ingenuity.”
  • Actors Ben Dickson, Christopher Ford and Duncan Styles, who play the members of the three man advertising firm in the film, are part of Waverly Films, a YouTube based comedy troupe that makes ad parodies, among other sketches.
  • Composer Jeff Grace was an assistant to Howard Shore on The Lord of the Rings films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Relying as it does on the montage style for its unsettling effect, I Can See You is filled with memorable imagery.  The briefly seen double-image of Ben is sublimely creepy, so much so that a variation of it was used for the original movie poster (unhappily abandoned in favor of a forgettable still of Ben shaving for the DVD release).  It’s Ben’s unfinished, faceless portrait of his father, however, which recurs several times in different contexts, that is the film’s most important visual symbol.  If you stare at the painting long enough you can make out tiny indications of eyes and a mouth, which makes the picture even more uncanny than pure blank flesh would be.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDI Can See You is one of the trippiest, druggiest movies to come


Official trailer for I Can See You

down the pike since the psychedelic Sixties; the last sequence plays like a twenty-minute, long-take hallucination shot on location inside Ben’s splintered mind.

COMMENTS: I Can See You‘s strategy is to slowly build up a storehouse of images, then Continue reading 41. I CAN SEE YOU (2008)

CAPSULE: S. DARKO (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chris Fisher

FEATURING: , Briana Evigan, Ed Westwick

PLOT: Samantha Darko goes on a cross-country road trip and learns along the way that, once again, the world will end at a predetermined time unless she figures out a way to stop it. Where’s Jake Gyllenhaal when you need him?

Still from S. Darko (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In a way, S. Darko is an oddity itself; its very existence is questionable to anyone who has ever seen the original. But the only weird thing about this movie is how much it missed the mark. It’s a cheap teen thriller looking for a quick direct-to-DVD freak-show buck, not a captivating look at angry youth, mental illness, and time travel.

COMMENTS:  In this direct sequel to Donnie Darko, a movie that couldn’t have needed a sequel any less, we follow the exploits of Samantha Darko, Donnie’s little sister, who lost interest in the preteen dance group Sparkle Motion and went about growing up. She decides, or perhaps her BFF Corey decides for her, that she wants to become a professional dancer. They take a road trip from Virginia to California seeking this lofty goal, but their car peters out in rinky-dink 90s Utah. From there, they meet a couple locals, and everything seems peachy until BAM! time travel stuff happens again; not because of some real world-shattering drama, but through the power of friendship (???) The whole concept is somehow more bogus than before, and the suspension of disbelief is infinitely harder to maintain. It’s a bland pastiche of ideas presented in the first film blended together with sexy ladies and 90s slang that weakly mimics Richard Kelly’s original like a parrot without a beak. There’s none of the spirit of Donnie Darko to be found here that would even qualify this movie as a spiritual successor. S. Darko has a hollow concept that could have been designed to boot up a franchise involving time traveling teens with washboard abs. I’m not a slavish follower of the original, but Kelly had inspiration, and at least a vague idea of where to place a camera to make the most of a scene. S. Darko is all textbook pap, and while I don’t think I would travel back in time to un-watch this movie (as that is the single lamest reason to time travel ever) I won’t look back on it fondly, to say the least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“S. DARKO is intriguing, and its actors come off well, but there’s no way of escaping comparisons to DONNIE, a truly special film…While you can tell it’s trying as hard as it can, and takes things a little further and into weirder territory in the process, the soul just isn’t there.”–Samuel Zimmerman, Fangoria

CAPSULE: PONTYPOOL (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Bruce McDonald

FEATURING: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

PLOT: Zombies who aren’t really zombies wreak havoc upon the peaceful (i.e. dull) Canadian town of Pontypool. We’re taken through the terror through the perspective of a local FM Zoo Crew DJ and his associates as more and more reports come into the station describing unnaturally violent tendencies in a growing minority of residents possibly infected with some kind of virus.
Still from Pontypool (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pontypool is merely a zombie movie with a twist. While it’s an admittedly interesting twist, I can’t help but feel that there’s not really a weird sensibility behind this project.  It’s original at times, strikingly original, and the writing is crisper than this little project merited, so it’s definitely a “good ‘un,” but it doesn’t stand out as freaky as much as it does slightly ahead of the curve in the horror genre.

COMMENTS:  Pontypool exists at that strange nether region between genius and camp that had me at “Sunshine Chopper.”  It’s a film that’s joyously in love with itself and the creativity that spawned it.  What’s so special about it? Well, besides the ingenious FM radio motif that anyone who’s ever been stuck in a commute will appreciate, it’s a film about the power of the spoken word.  Here, it’s English.  You see, what’s affecting these violent people is what can best be described as a virus affecting our collective language.  The people infected aren’t trying to kill other people as much as they are wanting to bite the words out of someone else’s mouth.  They’re stricken with a severe communications breakdown, and the mental anguish this inflicts upon said victim causes them to lash out violently.  It’s a really wicked concept, and I’m really quite impressed with the wit and cleverness involved with such an idea.  In the end, it’s really just a zombie movie, and it certainly has its limitations as far as the execution goes.  The soundtrack by Claude Foisy is weak and rather placid, the camerawork is hardly what anyone would call dynamic, and the actors are pretty green with the notable exception of the always-reliable Stephen McHattie.  But it’s definitely worth a shot if you’re a fan of the zombie film; as far as that niche goes, this blows about 65% of its peers out of the water and onto the shore for them to writhe uncontrollably, as is a zombie’s wont.  But as a weird movie, it has a long way to go in the grand scheme of things.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The suspense is carefully built up, but the film starts to get a little sticky, even risible, when it appears that the virus driving people mad is carried by words, specifically English ones, so the survivors in the studio start to converse in Franglais. But for the most part it’s compellingly apocalyptic.”–Philip French, The Observer

CAPSULE: BRAINIAC [El barón del terror] (1962)

DIRECTED BY:  Chano Urueta

FEATURING: Abel Salazar

PLOT: A smirking sorcerer is burnt alive by the Spanish Inquisition, only to return three hundred years later as a shapeshifting brain-eater to wreak his vengeance on the descendants of those who condemned him.

Still from Brainiac (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTBrainiac‘s appeal, weird or otherwise, lies almost entirely in its delirious hairy monster with its two-foot, forked, brain-sucking tongue. The beast looks like a mix between a middle-schooler’s papier-mâché art project and a legitimate nightmare. The rest of the movie is a different kind of nightmare.

COMMENTSBrainiac‘s story of vengeance from beyond the grave is a sloppy mess that exists only to showcase its unforgettable monster. And what a freak that Brianiac is! With its beaklike nose, sharp protruding ears, dual fangs, lobster-claw hands and two foot tongue, its head is hung with more phallic symbols per square inch than any other Mexican monster of its era. To add to its brutish masculine menace, the head is oversized, hairier than Dr. Hyde, and its temples and cheeks bulge and pulse when it sees itself faced with a helpless female victim. The Brainiac’s appearance (not to mention his behavior) is simultaneously goofy and frightening; the mask is so obvious and the facial features so exaggerated that the whole package seems to have been shipped to us equally from the land of parody and the land of nightmare. It’s an image that’s not easily forgotten, and one that’s kept El barón del terror in circulation on TV and video for over forty years, while thousands and thousands of more competent productions have been forgotten. When the monster’s not on screen, bad movie fans can entertain themselves by picking apart the plot’s inconsistencies—I find it especially odd that the Inquisitors who sentenced the Baron to death, presumably all celibate clergymen, each ended up with exactly one descendant three hundred years later. When in human form, the Baron occasionally sneaks off for a snack of brains eaten with a spoon out of a silver chalice. Also keep an eye out for the worst depiction of a comet ever put on the screen. In terms of riotous dialogue and incidents, however, Brainiac is no Plan 9 from Outer Space, and anyone who’s not a connoisseur of crap will find it slow going whenever the monster’s not on screen.

Brainiac was one of the Mexican fantasy movies imported into this country by the legendary K. Gordon Murray, dubbed into English and then sold to kiddie matinees or packaged for late-night TV showings in the U.S.  Murray also was responsible for bringing Mexican wrestling superhero movies (e.g. Santo) and several demented fairy tales (Santa Claus, Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters) north of the border.  David Silva, who plays a police detective, later appeared in El Topo as the Colonel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre. Nutty. Goofy. Ridiculous. Hilarious. The Brainiac! Even for Mexihorror this is one weird, way-out flick.”–Eccentric Cinema

NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

On Friday nights in Indiana during the 1960’s and 70’s, you invited your best friend over to spend the night (Denny), pleaded with Mom to fix a tray of pizza rolls and, out of courtesy, asked to stay up late for a night of Nightmare Theater with Sammy Terry. Of course, Mom always allowed it, as you knew she would, fixed those pizza rolls, brought in the blankets and left the two of you to your night of magic because she sure as heck was not going to watch those “scary movies’.

The creaking of the coffin filled the house as you watched, transfixed, as Sammy Terry and his spider, George, emerged to host a night of classic horror.  Usually, it was one of the Universal movies starring Karloff, Lugosi, or Chaney, Jr.

Bride of  Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Room, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Creature from the Black Lagoon were frequently shown favorites.  Quite a few of the Val Lewton RKOs were shown regularly, as well as the occasional Jack Arnold film, such as Monster on the Campus, Tarantula, or The Incredible Shrinking Man. My own personal favortie was Ulmer’s The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi battling out to strains of the Beethoven 7th. If the films shown on Nightmare Theater were  not always approached by the filmmakers as high art (i.e. The Wolfman) , then there was certainly consummate craftsmanship that one always felt Sammy approved of.

In between the features, Sammy Terry would discuss the movies, make jokes with George and other regulars (Ghost Girl, Ghoulsbie) , have an occasional guest, talk about the Pacers, or show off the crayola drawings of Sammy and George that local children would send to WTTV 4.  Sammy had an inimitable laugh that would send shivers down the 8 year old spine.

If you made it to the end of the night (and frequently did not, hence the blankets)  Sammy would retreat to his coffin and bestow his wish of “Many Pleasant Nightmares.”  You knew, with excitement and dread, that he would return the following Friday.

There were lots of local urban myths about Sammy Terry and we were all too happy to spread those myths to fellow classmates since Sammy was a favorite subject.  Of course, this was long before the days of cable TV, VCRs, and even color TV (at least until the mid 70’s at our house) so the local WTTV 4 Station ruled the roost out of the four available TV Continue reading NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SHATTER DEAD (1994)

DIRECTED BY:  Scooter McCrae

FEATURING:  Stark Raven, Flora Fauna, Robert Wells and John Weiner

PLOT: In the near future, people can inexplicably no longer cease to exist. Death means rebirth into a dead body and the undead walk among us.  A young woman tries to survive as the increasing numbers of dead do their best to convince her to die willingly and join them.

actress Stark Raven
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTShatter Dead contains some strange allegories.  It opens with a lesbian Angel of Death impregnating a mortal woman, which somehow begins the undead phenomenon.  In this zombie film, the dead are not flesh eating monsters.  They merely want to reestablish society—and they want the living to voluntarily take part.

COMMENTSShatter Dead is a low budget zombie movie. It also happens to be one of the most imaginative and interesting zombie movies ever made.  It is certainly the most unconventional, while remaining basically serious. There are some attempts at surreal symbolism, but they are not gimmicky efforts to deliberately make the film look arty. The entire piece flows like a compelling dream, which while twisted, is so interesting that we are reluctant to awaken from it.

In this offbeat yarn, the zombies are  “regular” people who happen to be dead, and yet still think and function. The dilemma in this morbid version of reality is that one lives on as a corpse forever, permanently trapped in the physical condition in which one found oneself at the time of death. Many have committed suicide in order not to spend eternity old and feeble. Postmortem injuries, regrettably, are permanent.  If a zombie breaks an arm for example, it is the same as if you or I sustained a broken arm that won’t heal for eternity. This phenomenon figures prominently in the plot.

The alluring and mesmerizing Stark Raven (yes, it’s a stage name, and no, she’s not a Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SHATTER DEAD (1994)

LIST CANDIDATE: GOD TOLD ME TO (1976)

AKA Demon; God Told Me to Kill

DIRECTED BY: Larry Cohen

FEATURING: Tony Lo Bianco, Richard Lynch, Andy Kaufman, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sidney, Sam Levene, Mike Kellin

PLOT: A rash of murders are committed by people who all give “God told me to do it” as their only motive. A New York City police detective must find out why.

Still from God Told Me To (1975)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A conventionally produced movie, God Told Me To has a bizarre story featuring some very strange characters, including an extraterrestrial man with a face that nobody can see clearly and a vagina in his ribcage.

COMMENTS: In this complex occult/sci-fi thriller, Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection, The 7-Ups) plays police Lieutenant Nicholas, who unravels a mysterious spree of killings committed by fellow New Yorkers from all walks of life. Each claim that God compelled them to commit the crimes  Many kill themselves or die after immediately after making the the revelation, complicating Nicholas’ job.

The film opens with a sniper perched on a rooftop water tower. After he shoots random people in the street,  Nicholas climbs up to talk to him and the man jumps to his death.  Nicholas is contacted by a representative of a sinister cult who seems to understand what is behind the crimes. While the cop tries to track down the cult members, the investigation takes him on a twisted journey into the past, including, to his surprise, his own past as he strives to solve this dark and obfuscated mystery. Nothing is as it appears to be. As he soon discovers, Lt. Nicholas is also not who or what he seems to be either.

While he attempts to unravel the puzzle behind the killings, Nicholas investigates his own birth as well as other strange phenomenon from bygone years. The answer to the riddle is morbidly fascinating. God Told Me To is one of those unique, non-formulaic 1970’s films that just aren’t made anymore.

The enigmatic Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams) has one of his most interesting and bizarre roles ever in this exciting and odd film. The piece features an early, rare cinematic appearance by Andy Kaufman in a non comedic role.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This cult-fave Larry Cohen epic, features his trademark NYC locations, vividly drawn characters, realistically handled situations and dialogue, and one hell of a weird premise.”—VideoHound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics

THE CREMATOR [SPALOVAC MRTVOL] (1969)

The Cremator has been promoted onto the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made; the Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED  BY: Juraj Herz

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, and Zora Bozinová

PLOT: In this mesmerizing, Gothic horror film, a funerary specialist becomes obsessed with what he believes to be the nobility of his calling, with terrifyingly tragic and bizarre results.

THE CREMATOR

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Cremator treats unusual, morbid, taboo subject matter in a visually dreamy way that is artful without being  gimmicky.

COMMENTS: In late 1930’s Prague, Kopfrking (Hrusínský) is a misguided, enigmatic crematorium operator. He is an impeccably groomed, eerie, and meticulous figure, always talking in a hypnotic, soft spoken, poetic manner.  He is overly preoccupied with mortality, morbidity, and the human soul, and deeply devoted to the funerary arts.

Kopfrking feels a physical affection for the instrumentality of his trade, lovingly caressing the equipment of the crematory process.  He speaks constantly, literally and metaphorically, of death and the liberation of the soul through the process of cremation.

As the story progresses, he becomes increasingly obsessed with his work, finding it glorifying and cathartic.  He sees visions of the ghost of his living wife in her youth, along with his future incarnation, as he begins a spiraling descent into fantasy and madness.  He is on a mission to free the souls of the deceased (and in time the not-so deceased) through the pyrolization of human flesh, be it living or dead—just as long as that flesh is consumed and vaporized by fire.

The pre-WWII German propaganda machine is enveloping Eastern Europe, polarizing aspiring Nazis and oppositionists.  Drawn toward the philosophy of the Third Reich, Kopfrking becomes morbidly obsessed with racial purity and the percentage of German blood flowing within his own veins—literally, to the point of having his vessels opened and the contents examined.  While The Cremator is not a raving anti-Nazi film, it uses the political ideology as an allegory for exploring the phenomenon of sweeping, consuming mass delusion and insanity.

The gathering of Nazi forces on the border offers Kopfrking an opportunity to realize his misguided aspirations on a grand scale, one much larger than he could have ever hoped for, one seemingly without limit.  Before applying his fervor and passion to the task, he hatches a plan to betray and destroy his own acquaintances, colleagues and family.

While there are elements of black satire in the The Cremator, the movie is so compelling as to nearly overshadow it.  The film insidiously and steadily flows to its inevitable and horrifying conclusion like a hot rivulet of liquefied fat.

The production design is crisp and symmetrical.  Stanislav Milota’s stunning black and white cinematography is haunting and beautiful.  It features successions of extreme closeups that emphasize the slightly grotesque and disturbing features of the biological condition.  Milota’s use of black and white film stock’s enhanced tonal range is artfully employed to focus attention on rich textures and multitudes of shades.  This gives The Cremator a uniquely unsettling dreamlike quality.  The musical score by Zdenek Liska is alluring, phantasmic, and aesthetically intriguing. Viewing The Cremator is akin to experiencing a nightmare that one is reluctant to wake from.

The Cremator was a Czech nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this 1968 black comedy in black and white is undeniably creepy—once director Juraj Herz enters the fractured mind of his protagonist, he refuses to budge.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: DEADGIRL (2008)

DIRECTED  BY: Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel

FEATURING: Jenny Spain, Shiloh Fernandez,

PLOT: Two high school delinquents find an undead young woman and use her as a sex slave.
Still from Deadgirl (2008)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Deadgirl is weird by virtue of its highly unconventional subject matter, which is treated in as matter-of-factly as a conventional drama.  It’s also better than you might think;  Deadgirl is one of the best necrophilia-themed movies I’ve seen.

COMMENTS:  When I read any description of a horror movie that includes the words, “teenager” or “students,” it stops me in my tracks, and I groan in disappointment.  However, it was conducive to the plot of this horror yarn that the two antagonistic protagonists be just that.

The pair are working class high school misfits.  (I must note that they are little more working class than the jocks and cheerleaders at most high schools, who stridently compensate for their ordinariness by engaging in meaningless make-work activities and ardently conform in order to raise their perceived social status.)  The two boys in this film are misfits only in the sense that they aren’t on the football team.   Like all teenage boys (and girls, let’s be honest) they are also dying of horniness.

Rickie (Fernandez) predictably covets a cheerleader possessing no redeemable qualities, who is saving herself to be date raped by the captain of the football team some drunken Homecoming night.  One afternoon, his friend J.T. (Segan) convinces him to skip class to drink beer in an abandoned insane asylum.  Where else?

Once there, they discover an inexplicably re-animated, shapely young dead girl (Spain) Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: DEADGIRL (2008)

CAPSULE: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Victor Halperin

FEATURING: Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A Haitian plantation owner seeks the help of local witch doctor and zombie mogul ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to bewitch another man’s bride.

Still from White Zombie (1932)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTWhite Zombie can send quite the uncanny chill down your spine and is well worth a look for those seeking to soak up some classic Gothic atmosphere, but its weird elements are too submerged for it to make the List.

COMMENTS: Although talkies had been around for five years when White Zombie came out, the film is suffused with the sensibility of a silent movie, with the machinations of mustachioed villains causing damsels in flapper bobs to daintily faint.  The players still use the exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures of actors used to conveying emotions by pantomime, and when they do speak, they over-inflect, as if concerned with projecting their words into the last rows of a theater.  This mannered, operatic style, where the characters magnify their fear, grief, malice and wonder in an recognizable but unnatural way, plays right into Bela Lugosi’s larger-than-life persona.  The Hungarian, here again the soul of suave degeneracy, dominates the proceedings in what may be the second best performance of his career.  In an era where we’ve become used to completely naturalistic performances and sets, White Zombie‘s primitive aesthetic seems romantic and, yes, a little weird; when this stately style is wedded to such a stark good versus evil storyline, the results can be magical, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell.  Even the grain in the picture, the hiss in the soundtrack, and the jumps where a few frames of film are missing add to the dreamlike effect. (Watching White Zombie, it’s easy to see how Guy Maddin became intoxicated with this era of film).  The narrative holds few surprises, there are dry patches, and the action climax isn’t exactly a thrill ride.  But White Zombie features many wonderfully disquieting moments that worm their way under your skin and make you squirm in your seat, including the Haitian funeral set to ancient African tribal chants and the damned souls powering the creaking mill wheel at Legendre’s sugar cane factory.

This was the first film to bring the Haitian idea of the zombie—a soulless, re-animated corpse brought to life by a combination of drugs and witchcraft—to the cinema.  Lugosi, just a year off Dracula, was a hot horror commodity but a notoriously bad businessman: he only received $800 for the role of Legendre. 

White Zombie is in the public domain and therefore can be found in many different DVD packages. The best picture comes from the restored Roan Group print (now released by Alpha Video). Although the source material used is not pristine, the best value is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection (also containing Carnival of Souls and several other worthwhile titles, along with some stunning losers like Creature from the Haunted Sea). White Zombie is also in the public domain and can be legally viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Contemporary critics  found White Zombie childish, old-fashioned, and melodramatic.  They might have allowed that it was also a Gothic fairy tale filled with traditional symbols, dreamlike imagery, echoes of Romanticism, and (probably unintentional) psychosexual imagery.”–Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films