Tag Archives: Independent film

262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

“I was surprised by reactions to the film. I thought people would find it funny or absurd, but people look really shaken when they come out. When we screened it at South by Southwest, there was a filmmaker I know who makes very strange films. And afterward, he looked like he had been through the wringer: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘Oh, come on.’ What can seem fun to one person can seem totally deranged to someone else.”–Jim Hosking, Rolling Stone

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo

PLOT: Big Ronnie eats an extremely greasy diet and runs a scam tour of L.A. disco locations with his unmarried adult son and live-in cook Brayden. At night he transforms into a lard-soaked monster who strangles people. When Brayden catches the eye of a girl on the tour, Big Ronnie becomes jealous and determines to seduce her himself.

Still from The Greasy Strangler (2016)
BACKGROUND
:

  • Jim Hosking worked as a music video and commercial director making short films on the side since 2003. His big break came when his bizarre and transgressive “G is for Grandad” segment of ABCs of Death 2 impressed that film’s producers, two of whom went on to produce The Greasy Strangler. and  also served as executive producers on the film.
  • The movie was supported and partly financed by the venerable British Film Institute.
  • This was 72-year-old actor and former punk-club owner Michael St. Michaels’ first leading role—unless you count his film debut in 1987s direct-to-VHS The Video Dead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Big Ronnie’s big prosthetic, flapping in the car wash blower’s breeze.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disco spotlight; pig-nosed stranglee; “hootie tootie disco cutie”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gross, greasy and bizarre, ‘s debut feature is the closest thing you’ll see to a modern Trash Trilogy film, filtered through the fashionable surreal comedy sensibilities of Tim and Eric or . Strangler is more than the sum of those influences, however: it is it’s own little world where a lisping man with a pig snout can walk around town without raising an eyebrow, and a spotlight might suddenly appear on an alley wall for a character to do a spontaneous dance number. The fat-to-nutrient content is too out-of-whack for this to count as healthy entertainment, but it’s fine as a guilty pleasure treat. It’s too big, bold and weird to be ignored; it’s not 2016’s best movie, or even the year’s best weird movie, but it is this season’s most insistently in-your-face assault on taste and reality.


Short clip from The Greasy Strangler

COMMENTS: “Let’s get greasy!” shouted the producers from the Continue reading 262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

CAPSULE: BIRDS OF NEPTUNE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Richter

FEATURING: Britt Harris, Molly Elizabeth Parker, Kurt Conroyd, Christian Blair

PLOT: Two sisters in Portland who have fallen into a pattern of stagnation and poor choices find their complacency upended when a manipulative man comes into their lives.

Still from Birds of Neptune (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the explanation for how the sisters got that way is a little on the peculiar side, the film itself plays it straight as an examination of two people who can’t move forward but refuse to look back until compelled to by an outside force.

COMMENTS: Fans of the satirical comedy show “Portlandia” have come to know the city as a place populated by extreme quirkiness and a measured indifference to social norms. Birds of Neptune, filmed in the city and featuring a local cast, plays it deadly serious, but it actually reinforces that same perception to outsiders about how life is lived in Stumptown.

Our leads absolutely play into the stereotype. Rachel is an experimental musician who is putting off both going to college and getting an abortion. (Kevin O’Connor and Erik Blood share credit for the score, which seems to include Rachel’s intriguing noodlings on the guitar). Big sister Mona, on the other hand, supports them both through her job as an exotic dancer with a preference for the avant-garde, including one routine in which she dresses like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Mona is harsh in assessing Rachel’s prospects, but also seems to be passive-aggressively standing in her way.

At the strip club Mona picks up Zach, a hipster-bearded psychology major with a penchant for nosing into the sisters’ business. He’s the one who discovers their dark secret—they were brought up in a Rajneesh-style cult laced with elements of Scientology, and still go through some of the motions of their unusual faith. This twist is probably the oddest element of the film, but there’s novelty in the fact that the film doesn’t condemn the girls for their mystical beliefs. In fact, their antagonist’s behavior manages to make a virtue of their ongoing commitment to a spiritual life that otherwise seems outwardly ridiculous and even dangerous.

We never learn precisely what Zach’s damage is, but he quickly makes it his mission to turn Mona against her sister, and then against her own past. This past includes an abandoned bathroom that is obviously the site of yet another family tragedy. Zach also seems determined to bed Rachel and destroy her budding friendship with a smitten 15-year old named Thor. (The film hangs a lampshade on that name at a critical moment in the film). In short, he’s a jerk. We get traces of this early on, as he snoops through the sisters’ house, but subtext becomes explicit as he purposely manipulates the two women, weakening the one while inadvertently spurring the other to take more definitive action.

In the final act, the film takes a very unexpected left turn into the realm of revenge thriller. It’s a curious choice from director Richter and co-screenwriter Flavia Rocha. If it’s intended to show how Rachel makes the crucial decision to move ahead with her life, that choice is already made. And if it’s meant to pull Mona out of her spiral into depression, it overlooks the fact that she is left alone at film’s end, now without direction herself. In any event, the characters are already developing steadily without the need for a sudden burst of violence to prod them along. It’s an illogical twist, which is weird, in a way.

Birds of Neptune is somewhat portentous, with lengthy shots of birds on branches and passing clouds serving as act breaks, and heavy dialogue scenes in which characters poke at each other in order to figure out each other’s “deal.” Ultimately, Birds of Neptune is a lot like its setting: laid-back, a little quirky, and getting where it wants to go at its own pace.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While Birds Of Neptune may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.”–Ben Umstead, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

AKA Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane

“Kane said quietly, ‘Why won’t you go to the moon?’

‘Why do camels have humps and cobras none? Good Christ, man, don’t ask the heart for reasons! Reasons are dangerous!'”

–William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (novel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders

PLOT: Col. Kane, a U.S. Marines psychiatrist, is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing delusional military officers who are suspected malingerers. There, he bonds with Cutshaw, a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, with whom he engages in passionate dialogues about the existence of God. One night, Cutshaw breaks out of the compound and heads for a bar frequented by a rough motorcycle gang; Kane follows.

Still from The Ninth Configuration (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”) adapted the screenplay from his own 1978 novel, which was itself a reworking of a 1966 novel (“Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane”) with which he had been dissatisfied. This was his directorial debut (in a career that reached three films with 2016’s Legion).
  • Blatty originally wrote a “Kane” screenplay that he hoped would be filmed by in the early Seventies, but they could not find a studio willing to produce it. Blatty and Friedkin collaborated on The Exorcist (1973) instead.
  • Although the script made the rounds in Hollywood for years, no studio would back The Ninth Configuration. Blatty eventually funded the film half with his own money and half with a donation from Pepsico, who were willing to provide funds for complicated international tax reasons so long as the film was shot entirely in Hungary.
  • Blatty has fiddled with the editing through the years, deleting and restoring scenes, so that cuts run anywhere from 99 minutes to 140 minutes.
  • According to Blatty, The Ninth Configuration‘s Cutshaw is the same character as the astronaut who attended the dinner party in The Exorcist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it possibly be besides the crucifixion on the moon?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lunar Calvary; lunatic with a jet-pack; dog Hamlet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, invoking a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.


Clip from The Ninth Configuration

COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without Continue reading 259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

366 UNDERGROUND: DELUSION (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Di Nunzio

FEATURING: David Graziano, Jami Tennille, Carlyne Fournier, Irina Peligrad

PLOT:  Frank, an aging widower still mourning the loss of his wife, follows a mysterious woman, ignoring the warnings of fortune tellers and his own intuition.

Still from Delusion (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It lacks extremeness in the weird department, with only some subtle spiritual themes to give the suspense an extra kick.

COMMENTS: Delusion is no ordinary suspense thriller; it’s got its fair share of dreamlike moments. The boldest aspects of its weirdness don’t come directly from the exploration of the supernatural, but rather from the quiet, introspective moments in between them. The contrast between light and dark, good and evil, is aggressive, and this effect gets multiplied up until the climax. Bouncing from polite conversations over the billiards table to moments of terror and shock, Delusion earns some weird-stripes for its tonal bipolarity. It fails to stretch its ideas of loyalty, loss, and redemption enough to exasperate and confound the mind, though. Instead, it snuggles warmly up into the mystery-thriller blanket, and then ends abruptly with some glorious goodies for weird movie lovers to chew on, but not swallow.

Playing wait-and-bait, everything starts off with silky politeness. Reflective death-related dialogue configures itself around lacquered settings in nature, and the sky is frequently grey, silvery and full of mourning. Frank (everyone’s got a depressed Uncle Frank, even McCauley Culkin from Home Alone) and his nephew Tommy drink brews and shoot pool, but Frank spends even more time standing alone next to swaying trees and thinking about his lost wife, Isabella. This period of reflection services the contrasting emotions at the film’s core by offering a portrait of a character’s earnest longing for closure. Frank is a lonely man. It raises the question: how could he resist the temptations of a succubus?

Before the succubus strikes, there comes a fortune teller who tries to convince Frank to think with the head on his shoulders, but that pesky human malady called grief gets in the way and he ignores her. Things get juicy when the lights go dim and Frank’s fortune is told. Amusing vibes come along with the “haunted” feel. There’s even a bit of James Wan-style pop-up house horror to keep the tension ratcheted up. Frank’s hallucinations get hairier; blood leaks out of sewer pipes, and strange apparitions follow him at home and abroad (some with face-paint straight from a flick).

Most fascinating are the peculiarly natural performances that weave through the staunch atmosphere. The actors have a smooth, organic style to their performances that give the movie a low-key vibe of sinister murmurs while it portrays internal rumination. The silences highlight Frank’s internal thoughts, and the white noise of nature (chirping birds, rustling leaves) offers a chance to process the feeling of aloneness that comes with being lost and vulnerable among soul-corrupting threats. Soothing as the warm pleasures of infatuation are, they aren’t enough to save Frank from himself.

Frank deals with, but does not resist, the temptation of the devil, who urges him to “trust your gut, not your head.” Life, he explains, is just moments and experiences, chaos. It’s hard to believe otherwise after watching Frank’s drastic transformation from a caring, reflective, sentimental man into an angry, womanizing, just-got-laid horndog. Sex can turn a man’s life completely around, and Frank is no exception; post-coitus, he does Baywatch-style beach runs and hits the bar for rounds with the boys. The dark side of his sexually-motivated metamorphosis comes during his reproachful trash talking at the end, which raises the question of whether he had a chance for redemption in the first place. There is one bizarrely violent moment in this movie, at the very end, but its cathartic edge can’t be found elsewhere in the picture. Delusion shows us that some men are doomed to die at the hands of what they desire, and the devil is always there to make the offer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s rather labyrinthine in character and takes all the time in the world to let the story unfold while intentionally blurring the line between this world and the next, the lead character’s warped perception and his genuine nightmares – and it plays with all these elements in a way probably most reminiscent of David Lynch without aping his style.”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]search My Trash (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: FIRST MAN ON MARS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Lyddon

FEATURING: Marcelle Shaneyfelt, Benjamin J. Wood, Gavin Ferrara, Kirk Jordan

PLOT: An eccentric billionaire flies to Mars, mutates into a monster, then returns to Earth to terrorize the silly citizens of Black Bayou, Louisiana.

Still from First Man on Mars (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ironically, this movie is only 9/10ths bad enough. Movies like The Room or Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny are low-budget and bad, but done with a sense of conviction, albeit mis-aimed. First Man on Mars is just bad on the boring, no-ideas level, not even interesting enough to make the so-bad-its-good category.

COMMENTS: First Man on Mars is an intentional parody of ’60s-’70s sci-fi horror drive-in B-movies. We open on a coroner in an office giving us a desktop lecture a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, a scene that ends with a chant of “Keep watching the stars!” Then we get to Cletus and his chum hunting in Louisiana. They run across an abandoned space capsule and a rubber-mask monster who disembowels Cletus’ hunting buddy with no foreplay, sending the terrified hick running for the cops. Flashback: the monster from the capsule was once astronaut Eli Cologne, a very obvious parody of real-life billionaire, philanthropist, and visionary Elon Musk. Eli came to Mars seeking shiny gold, despite already being rich enough to buy his own rocket to go there. Grabbing his first nugget, however, results in a tear in his glove, which soon leads to an infection which will transform him.

Mission Control argues that he’s not allowed to come back infected, but Eli is hearing none of it. He returns just in time to transform into a growling monster in the backwoods of Louisiana. The rest of the flick is pretty much people scrambling around in forest either chasing or being chased by said monster, with only the thinnest veneer of justification. That cast includes Cletus and two cops who don’t believe his story; a sleazy photographer and two models from “Bullets and Bimbos” magazine who hire Cletus as a guide to the dark swamps of Black Bayou for a woodsy photo shoot; a group of scientists from Eli’s project; an innocent girl going fishing and being fished; and a coroner who investigates Cletus’ mangled remains in between bites of lunch.

“Low budget” doesn’t begin to describe it, and cash isn’t the only thing this flick is short on. It is very stingy with the alleged classic sci-fi references. Unless you blink and miss it, you’ll catch one of the bumbling scientists being dismissed as a “red shirt” (Trekkie, check), a clumsy bit of banter with a “Bullets and Bimbos” model name-dropping (Elephant Man, check), a scene where two scientists pitch a tent just so they can play D&D (gamer nerds, am I right, ha ha?) before getting slaughtered, and so on. However, the film is generous with poop humor, boob humor, gross-out humor, insulting stereotypes of country bumpkins and geeks alike, Dollar Store props that are milked for all the lead-painted rubber they’re worth, and an extremely fuzzy understanding of the meaning of the word “humor.” At one point, one of the scientists screams over and over that he needs to defecate, before wandering off and accidentally dumping a steamer (rubber doggy doo, $0.99) on a  yet undiscovered body. Said pile of doggy doo is referenced again and again, traveling with the body even to the coroner’s office. And that, apparently, is the movie’s best foot forward.

Let it be known, being low budget does not disqualify a film from the list of 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made (see Robot Monster and After Last Season). And simply being bad is no barrier to entry, either. But there is low budget, and then there is being stingy beyond all reason. At least Robot Monster had the imagination to try to sell a bubble machine as alien technology. Imagination costs nothing. First Man on Mars seems to be done with no intention of being taken seriously, on any level, and nothing shows anybody seemed motivated to put in much effort, either.

Viewers who like sitting through every amateur production made by kids goofing around with mom’s camera on YouTube will find First Man on Mars right up their alley. It at least passes that standard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurd blast from low-budget director Mike Lyddon and his team of willing actor and crew participants, putting everything on the proverbial line to make this ambitious project first and put their seemingly absent shame second.”–Steven T. Lewis, It’s Blogging Evil

257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

“Usually you can fall back on a genre or something and go, ‘It’ll be great!’ With us, we were like, ‘I don’t know man, we’re making something crazy, it might not turn out well…’” – Daniel Kwan

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

FEATURING: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe

PLOT: Hank (Dano), on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) washed ashore. Investigating, he finds it is endowed with many with life-saving powers, and eventually develops the power of speech. Naming the corpse “Manny,” the two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries to find his way home and Manny tries to remember what it’s like to be alive.

Still from Swiss Army Man (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is the first feature from writing/directing team “Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They met at Emerson College in 2008, and soon collaborated on short films and music videos that combined Kwan’s background in design and animation with Scheinert’s background in comedy and theater.
  • Kwan came up with the idea as a joke, and the two aspiring filmmakers would pitch it during studio meetings for fun until they were eventually encouraged to actually develop it into something. The script came together in 2014 at the Sundance Labs, where was one of their advisors. (According to Scheinert, he wanted them to somehow incorporate the Gilligan’s Island theme song.)
  • Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe were the first actors to whom they sent the script. Both agreed immediately, after which Daniels rewrote the parts to be more suited to the actors.
  • Daniel Radcliffe insisted on performing most of his own stunts.
  • Daniels’ Grammy-nominated music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” single was a testing ground for the idea of an independent-minded penis later used in Swiss Army Man. Daniel Kwan himself is the main dancer in the video.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hank’s descriptions of women and sex (along with help from an alluring advertisement) provoke a sudden erection in Manny, but it soon becomes clear that his penis is actually pointing their way home. The erratic movements of Daniel Radcliffe’s member as it jerks within his pants towards a nearby pathway create an image I certainly won’t forget any time soon.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Corpse jet ski; DIY bus ride; fiery (and propulsive) bear escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With a farting, hacking, spewing, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the film’s complete sincerity, which despite all its high-concept groundwork makes its audience care deeply about its central characters.


Trailer for Swiss Army Man

COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are Continue reading 257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

255. RUBIN & ED (1991)

“People try to make me sound a lot… weird… and just, strong, you know, I’m strong!”–Crispin Glover on “Late Night with David Letterman”

“Talk about el weirdo.”–Ed, on Rubin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Howard Hessman, , , Michael Greene

PLOT: Ed is a recently-separated loser who joins “the Organization,” a cult-like real estate pyramid scheme. Rubin is a shut-in nerd whose mother takes away his boom box and refuses to return it until he makes a single  friend. When Ed tries to recruit Rubin to attend an Organization seminar, Rubin agrees to go, on the condition that Ed helps him find a place to bury his dead pet cat.

Still from Rubin and Ed (1991)


BACKGROUND:

  • Rubin & Ed was Utah-based director Trent Harris’ first feature film after making the three documentary/narrative hybrid shorts known as “The Beaver Trilogy” (the first installment is a documentary featuring an oddball kid who performs in drag as Olivia Newton-John, while the next two recreate the first using actors and Crispin Glover, respectively).
  • Glover created Rubin Farr for another role that never materialized. He convinced Harris, who was looking for a project for his feature film debut, to write a script around the character.
  • In 1987, three years before Rubin & Ed began filming, a stuttering, awkward Crispin Glover appeared in character as Rubin on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Letterman thought Glover was there to promote River’s Edge, and walked off his own set when Glover almost kicked him in the head while wearing Rubin’s giant platform shoes. The segment only lasted a little over four minutes. Many Americans who saw it live assumed Glover was wasted on psychedelic drugs.
  • Although it had a reasonable degree of star power and was produced by major independent Working Title Films (who released the Palme d’Or winning Barton Fink the same year), Rubin & Ed initially received terrible reviews made a mere $15,000 in its original theatrical run. The film flopped so badly that the studio pulled funding for another Trent Harris project that had already been greenlit. Rubin & Ed later found a small cult following on VHS.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Rubin’s happy hallucination, which features his previously-dead cat alive and waterskiing while its owner relaxes in a floating inner-tube wearing shoes with two foot heels, on which the bikini babe motoring the speedboat compliments him.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Weaponized platform shoes; waterskiing cat; insole slurping

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though structured as a quirky comedy, not too different from the usual outing of the period, Rubin and Ed has a gaggle of weird points in its favor, including a hallucination scene with a water skiing cat and a lunatic Crispin Glover playing something very near the Crispin Glover-iest character ever written. Its sense of humor is so eccentric that it’s been forced off-road to become strictly a cult curiosity.


Trailer for Rubin & Ed

COMMENTS: “It’s going to get weird now, isn’t it?,” frets Ed, after Continue reading 255. RUBIN & ED (1991)

CAPSULE: THE SHAPE OF THINGS (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Neil LaBute

FEATURING: , , , Frederick Weller

PLOT: A nerdy security guard falls for an anarchic art student; she encourages him to change his appearance and dress, increasing his self-confidence—but is she really good for him?

Still from The Shape of Things (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Neil LaBute’s pitch black adaptation of his own play falls into the category of “outside-the-box indie drama” rather than “weird.”

COMMENTS: On the surface, The Shape of Things appears to be about the lengths someone will go to change themselves to gain someone else’s approval. Evelyn transforms Adam from schlub to stud, but the changes to his body inevitably effect his mentality. But although the erotically-motivated malleability of the less confident romantic partner is one of the work’s themes, Shape reveals a different, more controversial, focus in the third act. The ending twist is easy to guess, particularly to anyone who has seen LaBute’s debut film (the venomous dissection of masculine manipulation In the Company of Men). But I was willing to forgive the obviousness, because I think that LaBute’s fundamental point—an attack on attitudes and platitudes prevalent in the postmodern art scene (Evelyn, the film’s antagonist, is the kind of artist who believes in spray painting classical sculptures as a “statement”)—needed to be said.

The Shape of Things‘s origins as a stage play are obvious—each transition might as well be preceded by intertitles of the format “Act 2, Scene 3”—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What it really means that this is an actor’s and writer’s movie; everything is built around dialogue, which is often very sharp, with only a couple of set changes. Each of the four characters gets at least one big scene with the other three: Adam and Evelyn, obviously, spend the most time together, but the male lead must also defend himself from a “you’ve changed, man” speech from bro Phillip and navigate a moment of awkwardness with his best friend’s girl, while Evelyn gets to argue with douchey Phillip about the nature of art and to confront Jenny about her supposed attraction to the new and improved Adam. The fact that each of the actors had played these characters on stage for a year beforehand inevitably helps their chemistry—the characters are a artificial, written as types to support a thesis, but the young foursome does everything possible to make them feel like real people.

LaBute is often accused of being misanthropic (or even misogynistic), but, like all satirists, he’s actually humanistic. It shocks me that so many critics and viewers come to the exact opposite conclusion—I guess they conclude that no writer could pen scenes of emotional sadism so convincingly without being a psychopath themselves. It seems obvious to me that LaBute shows us extreme cruelty not to titillate us, but to arouse our disgust—to encourage us to try to be better people. And, to encourage his peers to become better, more morally focused artists.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This version of Neil LaBute’s ongoing project is crisp and aggressive, occasionally alienating or annoying, that is, effectively unlike other movies.”–Cynthia Fuchs, Pop Matters (contemporaneous)

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

GUEST REVIEW: MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS (1989)

Guest review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich

AKA Life on the Edge

DIRECTED BY: Thomas R. Burman

FEATURING: , John Glover, Richard Portnow

PLOT: Henry Hollowhead works as the top meter reader for United Umbilical, and today’s his lucky break: his boss wants to come over for dinner, which Henry hopes will lead to a promotion. His wife Miriam fusses over making dinner for the special occasion, while the three Hollowhead children scamper about getting up to antics.

Meet the Hollowheads

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: We’ll let this quote from Keith Bailey’s Unknown Movies speak to it’s qualifications: “Even for a world of insanity that the Hollowheads lives in needs to be depicted with some kind of logic to it, to have some kind of (twisted) explanation for every unconventional gadget, location, and action. Otherwise, such a world is simply ‘How about I wear this suit to court, Mr. Soprano?’ weird for weird’s sake, with no point and no purpose except seemingly to put up as many bizarre things all chained together in a stream that could be best described as non-sequitur.” When a person whose whole gig is reviewing the most obscure movies possible levels the “weirdness for weirdness’ sake” accusation, you know it’s not your average cup of tea. On its own, the movie is an onslaught of colorful, even cheerful, but disturbing images. The highly cliched plot just lets its style take over the stage.

SUGGESTED INDELIBLE IMAGE: You could throw a dart at most any frame of this movie, but one scene defines it early on: eldest Hollowhead son Bud practices music in his room, playing an instrument that looks part trombone, part accordion, and part rubber chicken. Daughter Cindy enters to “tell Bud to choke it” but ends up singing along in accompaniment. As she sings “I feel good about myself; would not be anyone else,” the movie has by this time firmly established its stride and at the same time is bluntly telling us that it doesn’t care beans for our rulebook.

SUGGESTED THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tentacle for dinner; pulling the bugs off Spike; feeding grandpa

COMMENTS: Unlike many of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, Meet the Hollowheads is very easy to describe: it is a 1950’s sitcom from an alternate dimension. There, we’re actually done! If you take any TV saccharine slice of suburbia, from “Leave It To Beaver” to “The Brady Bunch” to “The Honeymooners,” then run it through the filter of (pick one) , Terry Gilliam, or David Cronenberg, everything you’re imagining in that description is 90% of what you’re going to see. This movie starts with that premise and stays fearlessly committed to it to the last scene.

The Hollowheads’s world is a claustrophobic—perhaps even underground—domain defined by their household, other households whom we never visit, a corporation called “United Umbilical” which seems to provide every necessity of life, and two policemen who may even work for United Umbilical. There they dwell, in a colorful “Peewee’s Playhouse” set apparently taken over by Cthulhu: their lives revolve around tubes, pipes, ducts, tentacles, squishy life forms, valves, spigots, sludge, slime, industry, and “The Edge,” an apparent hazard spoken of in whispers by two of the younger cast and sternly invoked by mother Miriam, who warns them not to fall off as she sends them out for an errand. Dialogue is festooned with references to plumbing, sewage, and other mucky slang. A tentacle with an eyeball on the end lies untidily piled in a glass jar in the Hollowheads’s home, silently watching the events; we know not whether it’s a pet or an appliance.

When the boss shows up for dinner and begins the second half of the film, the evening degenerates into everything that can possibly go wrong going wrong. There’s a few laughs to be had, but nothing enough to point to this as a comedy. It’s more of an exercise in the avant-garde. Because our familiar frame of reference has been yanked out from under us in this alien environment, we have no clue as to how outrageous any character’s behavior is in this universe. Boss Mr. Crabneck is nasty and vile almost beyond description, and Station Master Mrs. Battleaxe at United Umbilical barely fills the kids’ order while threatening them with all kinds of slimy fates, but everybody seems to take these behaviors in stride.

The tilted world also affords a heap of innuendo. When Mrs. Battleaxe sneers “I suppose your mother thinks it’s our fault that her tubes are blocked?,” or when police advise the Hollowheads to have their drugged-out daughter “pumped,” or when Mrs. Hollowhead has to conquer a phallic section of waggling tentacle coming out of her kitchen dispenser before castrating—oops, we mean slicing—it to chop up for an ingredient, we can’t escape the feeling that this movie wants us to snicker at it. We haven’t even mentioned “softening jelly,” a substance treated as scandalous here, but we have no idea what it is.

But it’s too strange to be fully funny. If anything, this is a very punk style applied to a sitcom world. Like Repo Man or Tank Girl, it mixes the familiar with the bizarre, getting us to accept the perverse because all of the characters accept the perversity. Like the best of weird movies, it makes no attempt to explain or justify itself. We have intercepted a sitcom from another reality, and we’re not being given a peak into the rest of that universe. You’re free to come up with your own point or even dismiss it as having no point. But this movie does assure us that the people in its universe would no doubt find our own world equally baffling, were the interception reversed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weird and wonderful cinematic misfire, alternately repulsive and ridiculous…”–Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema (VHS)

 

 

LIST CANDIDATE: SUTURE (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Scott McGehee, David Siegel

FEATURING: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono, Michael Harris

PLOT: A poor man discovers he has a wealthy brother, who subsequently tries to kill him as part of a criminal scheme. Surviving the attempt but with his memory wiped out, he assumes his brother’s identity, begins a romantic relationship with his doctor, and finds himself the target of the would-be assassin’s effort to finish the job.

Still from Suture (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A full-length tribute to the concept of nontraditional casting, Suture attempts to answer the question, “if you cast someone who absolutely does not fit the character description in a film where that character’s appearance is the crux of the film’s plot, does it make a difference?” Casting is the raison d’être of Suture, and the film knows it, letting its odd gimmick overwhelm every other element of the movie.

COMMENTS: So let’s get right to the twist: Brothers Clay and Vincent are repeatedly described as being near lookalikes, and marvel at their resemblance to each other. But they don’t look alike. Not even a little. They are completely different. And not in a “Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick play three generations in the same family” way. No, they are entirely different, especially in the sense that Michael Harris is a thin, slick white man, and Dennis Haysbert (later on TV’s “24”) is…not. So every mention—and there are many—of how strikingly similar the two men look is either calculated to generate a massive case of cognitive dissonance, or is an example of the most colorblind casting ever committed to film.

It’s very easy to look at this decision as an enormous joke. After all, directors McGehee and Siegel (who also penned the screenplay) demonstrate a quirky sense of humor, from placing a rich Phoenix businessman’s home inside what appears to be an abandoned bank building to scoring an attempted car-bomb-assassination to Tom Jones’ rendition of “Ring of Fire.” But any question as to whether this is a deliberate choice is erased by the dialogue that is used to describe Haysbert’s Clay: “Greco-Roman nose.” “Fine, straight hair.” This is the “Allstate” commercial guy we’re talking about. Haysbert is absolutely not the man the film says he is. So what does that mean?

One possible answer lies in McGehee and Siegel’s backgrounds as an academic and an artist, respectively. While the choice of a black actor to play a white man (coupled with stark black and white photography to reinforce the point) might seem to point to a discussion of race, they seem far more interested in exploring the nature of reality vs. representation. In her book “Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race,” Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks observes of Suture, “What we are confronted with is a screen that behaves like a Magritte canvas. ‘This is not a black man,’ it seems to say.” The filmmakers, she suggests, are actively denying that which we are seeing with our own eyes, in contrast to the manner in which cinema traditionally co-opts the audience’s willingness to accept the visual as truth. Is Dennis Haysbert as a Caucasian anymore absurd than a Transformer? McGehee and Siegel don’t think so, but they also know that, as moviegoers, we are far more willing to accept the latter.

As a metatextual analysis of the fungible nature of reality, Suture is a tremendous success. As a movie, it’s kind of sloppy. Not very much happens in the film. The plot itself is a straightforward play on the country mouse coming to the city. Mel Harris plays less a character than a collection of whatever character traits are needed in the moment: brilliant surgeon, then opera devotee, then skilled skeet shooter. A subplot about the police’s pursuit of Vincent feels more like padding than a suspense-building MacGuffin. More problematic, though, is the film’s outsized sense of self-importance. Characters frequently speak in a slow, affectless manner. They are surrounded by signifiers of their work. (The surgeon has walls of head X-rays, the psychiatrist decorates in mammoth Rorschach blots). Clay’s dreams are blatant symbols of a truth we already know, as if Gregory Peck’s hallucinations in Spellbound only came after Ingrid Bergman cracked the case. Perhaps most gallingly, the love interest is named, without a trace of irony (or payoff), Renée Descartes. The unheard soundtrack of Suture is crashing anvils.

What Suture has going for it, though, is staying power. Long after the film’s end, the scope of its oddity still bounces around in the brain pan. The film’s ending montage—the psychiatrist outlines in great detail how impossible it will be for Clay to ever find happiness in his new identity, while a slideshow clearly demonstrates Clay doing exactly that—is emblematic of the movie’s only goal: to watch the battle for dominance between what we know and what we see. Suture has one weird card to play, but it’s a doozy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exceedingly smart and elegant American indie in an unusual vein. Part mystery thriller, part psychological investigation and part avant-garde experiment…”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)