Tag Archives: Independent film

LIST CANDIDATE: WRONG (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , William Fichtner, , Alexis Dziena

PLOT: Dolph wakes up one day to find his dog missing; a mysterious Master Chang may have some information on the matter.

Still from Wrong (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With only two completed films under his belt so far, it’s already becoming obvious that musician-turned-filmmaker Quentin Dupieux is one of those auteurs whose vision is so defiantly offbeat that every movie he makes is likely to be a strong candidate for the list of the weirdest movies ever made. Wrong continues the absurd tradition Dupieux set in his debut Rubber, about a tire serial killer, only this time with even more focus on awkward, surreal comedy.

COMMENTS: Existential sad-sack Dolph has been having a rough time of it lately. It’s bad enough when you’re upset about losing a job at an office where the sprinkler system constantly soaks the workers, but to top it all off his beloved dog Paul has gone missing. His neighbor, a problem jogger going through a crisis of his own, is no help. His French gardener only has more bad news for him; his prize palm tree is suffering from an extremely odd disease. An unintentional romance with the girl who works the phone at the pizza delivery place only interrupts his attempts to telepathically connect with his dog. A detective who doesn’t want to see a picture of the missing pet but is obsessed with finding a stool sample isn’t very promising, but perhaps mystical entrepreneur Master Chang (played with irrational confidence by William Fichtner with a blond ponytail and an accent from nowhere) can help. Shaggy-headed Plotnik is surprisingly good as Dolph, anchoring us on our journey through this absurd world with his sincere bewilderment—although in one of the script’s arch meta-jokes, he accepts things like indoor rain at face value, while being completely confounded by incongruent details of pizza box logos. Even more important to the film’s success is his touchingly pure devotion to his missing mutt, which adds a note of genuineness to what would otherwise be a wry and arbitrary story with no emotional stakes. Although there is an ongoing plot, and each character has a unique arc and adheres to his or her own odd illogic, the movie is very digressive and inevitably feels a like a series of surreal sketch-comedy bits at times, almost as if Dupieux has been telepathically spying on the dreams of Monty Python cast members for ideas to fit into his dognapping script. Dupieux’s universe is like the comic world of , only turned up to 11, and with no philosophical pretensions. Wrong doesn’t arrive with the blindsiding strangeness of Rubber, but it does avoid a sophomore slump for the director, delivering unpredictable yuks along with an unexpected amount of heart. If this is Wrong, who wants to be right?

Dupieux’s upcoming project is titled Wrong Cops;he insists the story is unrelated to this film and the similar nomenclature occurs just because he’s “lazy with titles.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Answering the question ‘what’s weirder than a movie about a sentient car tire on a killing spree?’ Rubber director Quentin Dupieux gives us Wrong, a literal and figurative shaggy-dog story that takes its surreal kinks in stride.”–John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who explained it has “an intriguing mixture of deadpan absurdity and an eerie, low-key Lynchian undercurrent to the occurrences through out the film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE ABCS OF DEATH (2012)

Weirdest!(segments F, W, Z)

DIRECTED BY: Kaare Andrews, , & , Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, , Adrián García Bogliano, Xavier Gens, Lee Hardcastle, , Thomas Cappelen Malling, Jorge Michel Grau, Anders Morgenthaler, , Banjong Pisanthanakun, Simon Rumley, , Jon Schnepp, , Timo Tjahjanto, Andrew Traucki, Nacho Vigalondo, Jake West, Ti West, , Adam Wingard,

FEATURING: Too many actors to list individually, and no one appears onscreen for long enough to qualify as “featured”

PLOT: 26 short horror films about death, each inspired by an assigned letter of the alphabet.

Still from The ABCs of Death (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As you might expect from an anthology with a hefty twenty-six entries in a multitude of styles, it’s too uneven and not consistently weird enough for consideration for the List. That said, there are three very, very strange shorts here, and several others that nudge the weirdometer at least a little bit, which makes this worth a look-see.

COMMENTS: Rendered in a wild variety of morbid styles ranging from the avant-garde to the zany, these twenty six short films about death derive from a new breed of up and coming punk directors working in the diffuse genre that now loosely goes by the name “horror.” All the usual disclaimers about anthology films apply to The ABCs of Death, but this compilation faces an additional alphabetical hurdle: if A, B and C are all duds (and I say they are), the movie gets off to a slow start, and there’s nothing the editors can do about it. The order is locked in place and randomized, and the curators can’t impose any sort of flow on the show. The fact that each entry has to be unusually short (after the 11 minutes of end credits are subtracted from the run time we come out to four-and-a-half minutes per mini-movie) is more of a virtue than a drawback, since we aren’t asked to invest much time in the inevitable losers and failed experiments. The necessity for each director to hit hard and fast, with no time to build up true horror, led me to expect shock, gore, and cruel comedy to dominate over true terror. ABCs delivers on that score, but there was also a trend that make me wonder where horror’s head is at. Three out of the twenty-six entries—that’s 11.5%—prominently feature a toilet, and that’s not even counting the one that’s flatulence based. Has horror finally dug to the bottom of the bucket of viscera, and now there’s nowhere else to turn but the toilet to elicit cheap disgust? A more promising development, and one that’s much more to the point of this website, is that the exact same number of shorts (3, or 11%) were unabashedly weird-–suggesting that cutting-edge horror continues to be the last refuge for surrealism in pop culture. Before describing the three bizarre gems, we’ll mention a couple of odd, and not so odd, runners-up. “P is for Pressure,” set in a third-world country and involving a prostitute’s quest to buy an expensive present for her daughter’s birthday, is the omnibus’ only dramatic entry; although it has a morally sickening climax, it is authentically and unexpectedly touching. Though not written by Srdjan Spasojevic (who turns in an extreme but unmemorable riff on “R”), the violent and transgressive porn fantasia “L is for Libido” has a disturbing Serbian Film vibe (with a hallucinatory kick) that soils the mind. On the opposite end of the sexual spectrum, Catette and Forzani’s “O is for Orgasm” is a surprisingly beautiful and experimental explosion of color-filter eroticism that traffics in the concept of sexual release as “la petite mort.” In a normal compilation, “H is for Hydroelectric,” a Chuck-Jones-does-furry-porn style adventure in which an anthropomorphic Nazi stripper fox lures a British bulldog pilot to his doom, would be the WTF-iest entry. Here, however, it’s only an honorable mention, as that title is literally taken by “W is for WTF?” This is a study in surrealistic economy: initially appearing to be a self-aware parody, it quickly establishes a comic book mesh of Satanic gore porn, killer walruses, zombie clowns, and decapitated animators, then spins the images in a psychedelic blender for two gloriously insane minutes. “W” features miniskirted nurses and princess warriors in chain mail bikinis, but for gleefully adolescent gross-out sleaze, nothing beats Noboru Iguchi’s already notorious “F is for Fart.” It’s the tender tale of a lesbian schoolgirl that defiantly expresses a humanistic preference for the gas of an earthly lover over the vengeful flatus of God. “Fart”‘s motto is “let’s pass beyond the boundaries of good taste and become one together,” and does it ever achieve the first part, at least—this is a bad-taste stunner for an unstunable age. Still, top honors in the “weird” category go to Iguchi’s frequent collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, who continues to set himself apart as the brigade’s most inventive and audacious talent with ABCs’ capper, “Z is for Zetsumetsu” (“extinction”). A blond Nazi hermaphrodite fights a nude kung fu woman while a Japanese Dr. Strangelove comments on the action; it’s somehow inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquakes, and there are satirical references to American imperialism, the nuclear power industry, and Japan’s own sense of racial superiority. A topless rendition of the 9-11 bombings may have Americans shaking their heads, but it’s hard to be too offended by something that resembles an insane sushi chef’s wet dream (multiple characters ejaculate rice). Whatever associations this stew of mad images raises in the Japanese consciousness, its bizarro bona fides are unquestionable.

Of course, we would have highlighted an entirely different set of segments if this piece had been written for a gorehound journal or a monster blog. One of the issues with what marches under the banner of “horror” these days is that it’s a loose confederation of disreputable interests that encompasses torture porn, black comedy, sick eroticism and experimental imagery alongside traditional stories of vampires, hauntings and madman. With two films prominently featuring pedophilia, and the aforementioned scatology and surrealism joining the expected blood and guts, ABCs‘ selections suggests that the modern horror genre is becoming a final resting place for the generally transgressive rather than for the terrifying per se.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wow, what a weird, anarchic, energetic and exciting display, from claymation to puppetry to crazy postmodern collage to regular old live action!… I’ll take the movies that pissed me off too, if in some way they help make possible things as divergent and weird and exciting as Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s abstract, erotic ‘O Is for Orgasm,’ Simon Rumley’s grave and dramatic prostitution mini-melodrama ‘P Is for Pressure,’ and animator Jon Schnepp’s hyperactive every-genre-at-once ‘W Is for WTF?’ (probably my favorite of them all).”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE THEATRE BIZARRE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, , ,

FEATURING: , André Hennicke, Peg Poett, Virginia Newcomb, Enola Penny, Amanda Marquardt, Jeremy Gladen, Liberty Larson, Christopher Sachs, Nicole Fabbri

PLOT: In a dilapidated old theater, a macabre human puppet hosts six Grand Guignol-style tales of terror.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Theater Bizarre is similar to other portmanteau horror anthologies, but speeds past them into the realm of the weird with colorful eccentric characters and bizarre story situations.

Still from The Theater Bizarre (2011)

COMMENTS: First-rate makeup, eerie sets and props, and racy, gory stories with unpredictable endings make The Theatre Bizarre a real standout in the genre of horror anthologies. When an emboldened patron of the dramatic arts (Virginia Newcomb) spots an open door to a decrepit told theater down a questionable back street, her curiosity gets the better of her. She enters, takes a seat, and is treated to a series of six sinister stories of sexual obsession and madness, hosted by an uncanny animated human puppet (Udo Kier). Attempting to cultivate his patron’s fear, the puppet presents each demented segment like a circus ringmaster exhibiting a freak show of abominations, with each tale more horribly harrowing and outrageous than the last.

When they meet “The Mother of Toads,” an unwary student of anthropology and his fiancee touring the French countryside are lured into the lair of changeling witch with an offer to peruse rare books. Suffering from an unusual condition, she has an ulterior motive and a strange design in store for both of them. The inquisitive pair are in for the cultural shock of a lifetime.

The psychological tension of unrequited love goes through the roof in “I Love You,” and reality bends and warps when a smothering but inadequate lover plunges beyond the bounds of reason when confronted by the prospect of a breakup.

In “Wet Dreams,” George Romero’s zombie movie makeup artist Tom Savini (who also directs) plays a Freudian psychologist and marriage counselor who turns the tables on a philandering client when he helps a couple step to the other side of the mirror to realize their darkest fantasies.

“The Accident” relates the story of a little girl learning the harsh realities of death after witnessing the aftermath of fatal traffic accident. This serious effort is neither macabre nor racy, and stands out from the other stories in The Theatre Bizarre for its dreamlike filming style and quiet contemplative atmosphere.

“Vision Stains” introduces a psychotic “experience junkie” who kills other women, drains the vitreous fluid from their eyes and injects it into her own to steal their memories. But when she chooses an “exceptional” victim, she takes a ride straight to hell.

Their addiction to elaborate confections cements an uneasy alliance between an oddball beatnik couple in “Sweets”. The glutenous duo’s precarious hold on their shaky union is challenged to the extreme when they join an exclusive club for twisted food perverts whose appetites are esoteric in the extreme.

As a whole, The Theatre Bizarre is a bit uneven. Its segments are diverse and feature unique directorial and writing styles, but each terror tale is memorable, colorful and over-the-top without being campy or silly. The Theatre Bizarre is a portmanteau-style anthology in the tradition of Creepshow or Tales From The Crypt; but with its adult themes and abundant nudity, it’s definitely not a children’s movie. Lurid, salacious, chilling, and bloody as hell, The Theatre Bizarre is the most memorable horror anthology I have seen to date.

All of the directors have done prior work in horror cinema: Richard Stanley (Dust Devil, Hardware), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock, Life is Hot in Cracktown), Tom Savini (the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead), Douglas Buck (Cutting Moments), David Gregory (Plague Town), Karim Hussain (Subconscious Cruelty), and Jeremy Kasten (The Attic Expeditions, Wizard of Gore).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These elements may be shocking and even bizarre. But, like a lot of midnight-movie provocations, they soon turn predictable.”–Mark Jenkins, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE RAMBLER (2013)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dermot Mulroney,

PLOT: A nameless man is released from prison and hitchhikes across the West heading for a job at his brother’s ranch, meeting absurd characters along the way.

Still from The Rambler (2013)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a defiantly weird and dryly funny mix of dusty movie clichés and arthouse surrealism, set in that timeless, existential American movie desert where the cowboys and hobos of myth once roamed.

COMMENTS: The Rambler is sure to be marketed as a surrealistic horror film, which is a shame. I think people will enjoy this druggy road trip through the Weird West more if they go in with the mindset that they are attending a black comedy with horror bits. The title character—who is almost never seen without his rumpled cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a cigarette dangling from his lip—is a parody of every ultra-macho B-movie man-with-no-name existential outlaw since Clint Eastwood. When he briefly takes a job as a hobo boxer, he’s about to whip his shades off to fight his opponent (who, rather unfairly, has a nasty hook for a hand), but his promoter advises him to keep them on because they “look cool.” He’s so unflappable that when someone tosses a severed limb into his lap he brushes it away and shrugs nonchalantly. He’s a man of few words—mostly the word “no”—and at one point, when “the girl” presses him on his feelings, we see why, as he stumbles to put together a coherent sentence. His blank stoicism as he slouches his way through a world of redneck nightmares is a running joke; the only character who gets much of a reaction from him is the living corpse who pukes a gallon of yellow bile onto his face while he’s handcuffed to a bedpost, and even then the Rambler registers only mild annoyance (he also forgets to clean the crusty vomit off his face before he resumes hitchhiking, and wonders why no one will pick him up). The movie is so deadpan in its absurdity that it’s the sincerely intended horror sequences, like a trip to a family home that resembles a hallucinatory funeral parlor, that seem out of place. The movie’s final sequence grows from an effectively sick and squeamish nightmare notion, but arguably overplays it a bit, with the incessant screaming becoming annoying rather than horrific. The knockout oddball character is a mummy-toting professor who records dreams onto VHS, although he hasn’t quite perfected the technology yet. Lindsay Pulsipher is the sunshiny femme fatale (and horrific specter of commitment) who won’t stay dead and who haunts the Rambler throughout his psychedelic odyssey. Mulroney inhabits the title role like a suit of clothes that haven’t been changed for weeks. Given the picaresque, incident-to-incident nature of the movie, it’s necessarily hit-and-miss, but the road movie architecture serves the surreal format—there is just enough loose structure to keep us grounded, as we know the Rambler is on a journey with a clear destination in mind, even if we suspect it’s a mirage and settling down into a steady job as a cowhand goes against his rambling nature. When I attended Reeder’s debut movie, The Oregonian, almost a fourth of the midnight audience walked out before the ending. For The Rambler I only spotted a single early exit. With The Rambler‘s exploding heads, severed limbs, and corpse-eating dogs, the lack of flight into the aisles wasn’t because the material was less grotesque or shocking than the prior film’s notorious “rainbow pee” sequence. Perhaps it was because word of The Rambler‘s eccentricities had gotten around and the audience was better prepared this time, or maybe I simply saw the movie with a tougher-minded, more weird-friendly audience. I think the answer to the conundrum is simpler, though: The Rambler is a better and more watchable movie than The Oregonian, largely due to the abundant humor. If Reeder keeps improving his craft at this rate, he’ll have to abdicate his title as “the walkout king of Sundance.”

Throughout the movie the Rambler carries a guitar, although he rarely plays it, because, as he says, “I haven’t found a song yet.” Per Reeder’s post-screening statements, he based the character on the wandering hobo folksinger archetype, a la Woody Guthrie (the title itself might have been suggested by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who always wore a cowboy hat). The Rambler has been picked up for distribution by Anchor Bay and is currently available on video-on-demand; it releases on DVD June 25.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Rambler just seems weird for its own sake and in love with cheap shock value… The overall effort comes off like a half-assed pastiche of the entire cult section of the old Kim’s Video on Bleecker Street.”–Steve Erickson, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

UPDATE (3/5/2014): Upstream Color has been officially inducted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Here is the Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Upstream Color

PLOT: After a man known as the Thief drugs a young woman and steals most of her money, she loses her job and some of her memory, and needs to start an entirely new life; a year later she is romantically pursued by an incorrigible businessman, but their relationship is hindered by her traumatic experience and the enterprising man behind it.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Approaching the narrative in a dreamlike state, Upstream Color is a surreal and beautiful journey through lingering trauma, tinged with elements of science-fiction and romantic drama. Its convoluted, unstructured story is at first distancing, but the imaginative visuals, strong performances, and compelling use of sound make for a weird movie that’s also emotionally resonant.

COMMENTS: Opening with choppy shots of a mysterious drug operation involving white worms with unique mind-altering properties, Upstream Color devotes most of its first act to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a special effects coordinator who is knocked out, drugged up with a worm, and essentially taken hostage in her own home for a few days. The worm has a kind of brainwashing effect, allowing the Thief (Thiago Martins) to coerce Kris into signing away all that she owns. Left alone and discovering the living worm crawling around inside her skin, she is sonically drawn to a pig farm where the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) cuts it out of her and harvests it for future use. She wakes up at home with no memory of the experience, and only an empty bank account and unemployment to look forward to. It is a deeply unsettling sequence, played out in short, calculated bursts that emphasize the strange and harrowing process of Kris’ mental infiltration. The Thief remains faceless and monotone while she unquestioningly follows his every command, which primarily involve making her repetitively perform mundane tasks as a means of keeping her weak and controlled.

Fast-forwarding: after things have settled down, Kris, with a new haircut and an unexciting job at a copy shop, is harsh and distrustful. Her first interactions with Jeff (Shane Carruth) are halting and unsure, choppy and without resolution, and as their relationship grows deeper their scenes together become repetitive and disjointed. Both seem to have confused memories. The soft-glow blur of their romance is cut through with an otherworldly hum that seems to take over Kris, and she and Jeff begin to realize there are greater forces at work here. Their unconscious repetitive actions echo each other, and they see connections in each other’s fragmented psyches. Through it all the Sampler watches them, maintaining the pig farm where he harvests the mind-altering worms, with each pig serving as some kind of psychic link to the humans he’s operated on. His stony, unreadable demeanor makes him an ominous figure, and his sound-gathering trips are fascinating while also somehow menacing.

Upstream Color is notable for its combination of different genre and story elements that are blended and transformed through Carruth’s innovative narrative and filmic techniques. Diffused light and extreme close-ups mix with quick-cut editing and microscopic natural wonders, along with some graphic medical procedures and animal abuse. The loving attention to sound—both effects and background score—is clear, effectively creating an at-times anxious and at-times comforting atmosphere. The film is composed of little details that may or may not be important, as the bigger picture gradually, partially reveals itself, so that every scene is equally gripping and enigmatic. While the story is often ambiguous, Carruth does not lose sight of his characters, and in fact the performance of Amy Seimetz as the central figure grounds much of the film. As a whole it is certainly obscure and utterly dreamlike, and most viewers will likely leave unsure of exactly what went on, but certain that whatever it was, it was beautiful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “To watch the haunting, disturbing ‘Upstream Color’ is to feel like you’re inside not one of your own dreams but someone else’s, a dream that’s both compelling and unnerving in ways you can’t put your finger on.” –Kenneth Turan, LA Times.

CAPSULE: THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Dee Wallace, , Judy Geeson

PLOT: An overnight DJ is drawn into a web of witchcraft when she plays a mysterious record.

Still from The Lords of Salem (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird, to be sure, but it’s not weird enough to make us forgive all of the script’s missteps. I saw Salem in a theater with a quartet of teenagers as the only other patrons in the audience. They were far more thrilled by the Iron Man 3 trailer, which made the girls and boys alike squeal with delight. They were less impressed by this movie: one of them complained afterwards that it wasn’t even a “horror movie” (what kind of movie she thought it was, if not horror, I didn’t overhear). Yet, they stayed through the entire thing. If you can’t get teenagers who think Iron Man 3 looks awesome to walk out on your movie, then I’m afraid you haven’t made it weird enough to make the List.

COMMENTS: The Lords of Salem wants to be a rock and roll Rosemary’s Baby, but most of the time it’s just a bunch of dream sequences floating around in space, looking for a movie to latch on to. Of course, 366 Weird Movies doesn’t object to the use of dream sequences—hell, make your entire movie one long dream sequence and we’ll eat it up—but we do object to the clumsy, clichéd fashion in which they are handled here. If you’ve seen a horror movie before, you know the kind we’re talking about: everything seems normal and then suddenly the protagonist sees some dreadful apparition, bony fingers reach towards her neck, and then—poof!—she wakes up, it was all a dream. Do it once, and you’re just relying on a genre convention. Do it twice, and the audience may start to get annoyed. But play this trick three times or more, as Salem does, and you’ve broken a bond of trust between viewer and director. But let’s back up for a moment. These recurring hallucinations take up most of the pictures second act. The first act sets up the essential story: DJ Heidi lives alone with a dog in a Salem, Massachusetts apartment. Played by Sheri Moon Zombie, Heidi is unglamorous: skinny like a junkie, with bad tattoos, blond dreadlocks and hipster glasses. (Despite what you may have heard, her acting is not bad; the character is just underdeveloped. It was created in makeup and wardrobe, not in the script). Heidi interviews an expert on the Salem witch trials (for some reason, the late night classic rock show she co-hosts invites only Satanism-related guests) who provides historical background on local witchcraft cults. Then she receives a mysterious LP record, plays it on the air, and we drift into that seemingly never-ending series of dreams inside dreams which serve no plot purpose, but only showcase the director’s ability to construct a fake scare scene. Although it turns out all those second-act hallucinations (including a nasty bit involving a priest) were just padding, the story starts to improve in the third act, when three villainous witches start actively corrupting events. As the end draws near, the hallucination sequences become both more intense and more meaningful. Directed by the delightfully nasty and foul-mouthed hag trio, they take on a purposeful ritualistic character that makes it clear (well, somewhat clear) what’s going on with Heidi. The scenes turn operatic as Heidi’s efficiency apartment transforms into a grand ballroom. We meet a wonderfully creepy fetus-looking demon with a bifurcated umbilical cord who’s up to no good. And Rob Zombie goes all-out crazy in the final moments, creating a grand surrealistic horror montage that’s reminiscent of the kind of psychedelic apocalypses was putting up on big screens in the 1980s. The bottom line is I can’t recommend, or recommend avoiding, watching Lords of Salem. If you go you’ll see a fairly standard horror movie setup, a muddled middle, and an ambitious ending; you’ll see demons of every shape and size (including one looks like Chewbacca), corpses and rats and goats, psychedelic effects, blasphemous Satanic sex rituals, nude hags, cameos by minor genre icons like Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn (the credits say  and  are in there somewhere too, though I didn’t spot them), and Sheri Moon’s skinny butt. If that kind of hodgepodge sounds it worth it to you, and you don’t need a coherent story or artistic vision to tie it all together, than by all means have at it.

Rob Zombie is a difficult director to get a handle on. On the one hand, he is almost certainly the most talented director to ever bear the name “Zombie.” On the other hand, each of his movies contain moments of visionary inspiration marred by deep flaws and missteps. He displays the aesthetic sensibilities of an Iron Maiden album cover combined with an overweening sense of self-importance (his rambling, half-mad director’s statement claims that “only the goat knows free will” and warns against some “dangerous old conceptual fiction so near to the silver screen”). He’s a true American weirdo for our sick times.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film eventually abandons psychological subtlety for hallucinatory garishness, which is too bad.”–Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SPRING BREAKERS (2012)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ashley Benson, James Franco, , Selena Gomez

PLOT: Four college girls head to Fort Lauderdale for a week of binge drinking, drugs and sex and wind up teaming up with a local gangster for a crime spree.

Still from Spring Breakers (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It isn’t in the same league of weirdness as the other two Korine movies that have already made the List, although in many ways the deliriously debauched Spring Breakers is this director’s best film.

COMMENTS: Making an arthouse movie that critiques American trash culture starring a cast of gun-toting barely legal starlets in bikinis is a tall order. With Spring Breakers, Harmont Korine is shooting for something like a topless La Dolce Vita for the rave set, but it ends up more along the lines of “Girls Gone Wild” on acid. Not that that’s a bad thing; far from it. Spring Breakers isn’t profound as satire or anything—you mean these blunt-huffing sluts aren’t good role models for today’s suburban youth?—and the plot’s about as substantial as a string bikini, but the glitzy neon visuals and impressionistic narrative style synergize to create a uniquely American nightmare of trippy titillation and regret. Unannounced flashbacks, narrated montages and drug-trip sequences (there’s a nice pixelation effect where the image shifts unpredictably as Selena Gomez smokes a joint) disorient the casual viewer looking for nothing more than T&A. Add in a grungy gonzo performance by James Franco as Alien, an arrogant small-time dope and gun seller with pretensions of rap greatness, and you have an entertaining, if messy, trip through the dark side of contemporary collegiate consciousness. In Trash Humpers, Korine manifested the nihilism of the humpers’ lives through their horrid wrinkly rubber masks and glitchy low-tech videography, but here he focuses his camera on the improbably gorgeous; it’s all bikini crotch shots with arty lighting and Dutch angles. Despite all the beautiful bodies, the director’s trademark amateur grotesques also show up, in the form of a pair of scabby-looking thug brothers (the real-life “Atlanta twins,” inexplicable local mini-celebrities). With his trash tattoos (pot leaf on the back of his hand, dollar sign on his neck), grill of gold teeth, and cornrows, Franco’s scummy Alien looks like a typical Korine creation, too. You can almost smell the mix of b.o., reefer smoke and cheap cologne rising off him. Alien gets the best lines; his speech about how he’s living the American dream encompasses the film’s entire social agenda (plus he has Scarface running on an endless loop in his bedroom). The film’s maddest moment occurs as Alien sits at his beachside grand piano surrounded by the bikinied breakers in pink ski masks and croons a Britney Spears ballad that segues into a crime spree music video. Potty-mouthed hotties, psychologically sadistic threesomes, a vast variety of bongs (including one shaped like a baby), a magical bikini massacre and reams of general debauchery round out the shock action. Korine has previously worked almost entirely in anecdotes, and it’s nice to see him challenge himself with an attempt at a semi-coherent full-length narrative, even if he doesn’t quite have a grasp on how to tell a story (or, to be fair, much interest in telling one). The action is nonsensical; character development is nonexistent. The bad girls start and end the movie as bad girls, the good girls start and end as good girls. Really, Spring Breakers is a portrait of a mindset—the idolatry of ecstasy-popping suburban white kids towards the ideal of amoral freedom embodied by the hip hop gangster—but the drift towards more conventional storytelling suits the director. For all its faults, the movie works because Harmony Korine finally embraces the fact that he is at heart an exploitation movie director working with an arthouse movie toolkit, not the other way around.

In promoting the film, Korine conducted a bizarre, typo-laden “Ask Me Anything” Q&A on Reddit. Among his pithy gems was this response to the question “is Harmony short for Harmonica?”: “yo mommaica.” BTW, Spring Breakers perv scorecard goes like this: Gomez keeps her swimsuit on, Hudgens and Benson are briefly seen nude underwater, and the director’s wife goes all out, appearing in a shower scene and having cocaine snorted off her torso. Extras provide plenty of boob flashage to fill out the sleaze quotient.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a weird, day-glo fusion of trashy exploitation thriller and arthouse pretension, enlivened by game performances from a trio of former squeaky-clean TV stars and a deliriously brilliant turn from James Franco.”–Matthew Turner, View London (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SLACKER (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: The citizens of Austin, Texas

PLOT: Slacker spies on the aimless exploits of the slackers of Austin, TX; the camera follows one character for a few minutes, then veers off to chase another through a series of comical, philosophical, and absurd vignettes involving hit-and-run drivers, elderly anarchists and video fetishists.

Still from Slacker (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Slackers is a seminal, interesting, and at times incisive storytelling experiment, but it’s of interest to weirdophiles mainly as the spiritual prequel to Waking Life, which is virtually Slacker remade as a dream.

COMMENTS: The batty cast list—credited characters include “Dostoevsky Wannabe,” “Recluse in Bathrobe” and “Hit Up for Cigarettes”—accurately reflects the mix of mundanity and eccentricity on display in writer/director Richard Linklater’s slice-of-life tour of the coffee shops and crash-pads and on the fringes of Austin, Texas in 1991. Slacker is a character study of the subculture of bright but unambitious dropouts and unemployed postgrads bent on extending their undergrad lifestyles that exists in every college town. At the time of its release it was seen as emblematic of “Generation X”‘s alienation and withdrawal from mainstream culture, but in reality this Bohemian substrata of unmotivated aesthetes and anti-establishment hedonists has always been with us under various names (if the movie had been made in 1291 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence it would have been entitled Goliard). For this peripatetic essay Linklater borrows the elegant but seldom used narrative device invented by Luis Buñuel for The Phantom of Liberty: two characters walk down the street discussing whether they should leave the country, then the cameraman suddenly gets bored and starts following a man who enters a coffee shop where an insane woman advises him that he should “never traumatize a woman sexually,” then decides instead to see where the guy who just entered the shop wearing a bathrobe is headed to, and so on. The result is a series of vignettes which are occasionally funny, occasionally disturbing, and often repetitive, but which capture a peculiar, laid-back, mad energy of a particular place at a particular point in time. Still, as the film’s oldest character rhapsodizes when remembering Charles Whitman, “this town has always had its share of crazies—I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Memorable characters range from the UFO enthusiast who accosts passersby to explain his theory that we’ve been on the moon since the 1950s to the tomboy who’s looking to fence stolen celebrity gynecology artifacts, cheap. Linklater, who delivers the first of the film’s many discursive monologues himself in the role of “Should Have Stayed at the Bus Stop,” shows an attitude of fond disdain for a town where everyone sleeps in late and is working on an unfinished novel or playing in an unsigned band. The director may have arisen out of the Austin milieu, but if he’s a slacker, then he’s a type-A personality slacker; he’s obviously a much harder worker than the guy who earnestly muses “who’s ever written a great work about the tremendous effort required not to create?” over a cup of cappuccino. If Slacker has one downside (besides excusably spotty acting by the amateur cast), it’s that the movie turns repetitive and arguably outstays its welcome. Somewhere between twenty and forty-five minutes in we start to get the picture; although the UFO guy and the JFK guy have totally different obsessions, ultimately they’re both just proselytizers with a passion for explaining stuff we don’t care about to us in ridiculous detail. The overall portrait Linklater manages to paint is still very impressive; Slacker may be the most passionate and invigorating movie about doing nothing ever made.

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to see Slacker in Austin, TX in 1991 in a theater in a strip mall (I lived in Dallas at the time but had a friend attending UT with a couch I could crash on). The movie, which was playing nowhere else in the country, had been held over for a second week, and the afternoon matinee showing was standing room only; everyone in the audience but me probably had a friend or two who was an extra in it. I had an aisle seat; a middle-aged woman came in late and stood next to me during the entire show, shooting me nasty looks as she shifted from foot to foot. I recall thinking it ironic that the Austinite had to stand through the whole performance simply because she had slacked off on getting to the show on time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…funny, surreal and weird… Linklater traces the dehumanized weirding of America — as collectively defined by David Lynch, Errol Morris, Jim Jarmusch and others. But he does it with a detached, yet sympathetic sense of irony.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who suggested that all of Linklater’s films were “pretty weird and deep with one or two exceptions.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Evan Neumann

PLOT: Scenes from the life of schizophrenic Julien and his bizarre family.

Still from Julien Donkey-boy (1999)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made between his startling debut Gummo (1997) and his acerbic comeback movie Trash Humpers (2009), Julien Donkey-Boy is the Harmony Korine experiment that falls through the cracks. Sure, it’s got its fertile weird moments—Korine puts Werner Herzog in a gas mask and has him swill cough syrup—but its indifference to narrative or structure makes for a lot of dry patches, resulting in a frequently dull movie that’s of interest to hardcore Korine-ophiles only.

COMMENTS: Switching from familial underwear wrestling matches to hidden camera thrift store excursions to snippets from a freakshow talent contest, with all the footage apparently shot by a drunk and edited by a psychotic, the movie Julien Donkey-boy is as schizophrenic as its protagonist. Julien himself is ably, if unpleasantly, portrayed by Scottish Ewan Bremner, who drools and slurs ridiculous monologues from behind a grill of gold teeth (presumably the source for the “donkey-boy” title reference). Julien’s brother is an aspiring wrestler; his sister practices ballet in her room at night, but she’s in her third trimester. Lording over this motley brood is pop Werner Herzog; he swigs cough syrup (from a slipper), listens to Dock Boggs and occasionally wears a gas mask. He has given up on Julien and his sister and focuses all his hopes and attention on their athletic brother. We absorb these relationships slowly as the movie weaves from one improvised incident to another. Julien spies on his sister dancing, then takes a bath and gibbers out a prayer, then the family has dinner and Herzog discusses the false-teeth cleaning habits of famous people, and so on. Other scenes are simply impressionist camera experiments, with out-of-focus, seasick handheld shots and experimental lighting. Korine keeps up his obsession with grotesqueries and freaks, finding ways to shoehorn a dwarf who plays drums with his feet, a rapping albino, and a human ashtray into the story. One bizarre, disconnected scene shows a nun masturbating. The deliberately undisciplined technique of stitching together sketches shot in various styles is carried over from Gummo, but the collage approach doesn’t work as well for painting a portrait of an individual as it did for a town. By repeating words like mantras and babbling nonsense syllables to fill in the empty spaces in his monologue stream, Julien’s speech resembles a real schizophrenic. But, like a real schizophrenic, although you feel sorry for him, you also don’t want to spend a lot of time with him. The character manages to be simultaneously irritating and boring, which are not the defining characteristics you want in a movie protagonist. In a key scene, Julien proudly recites a poem at the dinner table: “morning chaos eternity chaos midnight chaos noon chaos eternity chaos…” It goes on for several stanzas before Herzog interrupts, explaining he doesn’t like the poem because it’s too “artsy-fartsy.” He then describes the climax of Dirty Harry as his idea of great art. Korine seems to be mocking the public preference for meaningless exploitation over artistic ambition, but the irony is that anyone would consider Dirty Harry a greater achievement than Julien’s nonsense poem. Julien Donkey-boy emerges as the least interesting of Korine’s experimental features, which is a shame because it’s also his most humanistic pictures, and the only one where he seems to truly like his characters (Julien was based on Korine’s uncle). The scene where Sevigny pretends to be Julien’s dead mother while talking to him on the telephone is unexpectedly touching, and the shots of the pregnant blonde meandering through a golden field of sunlit grain while singing hymns counts as the most legitimately beautiful thing Korine has ever filmed. It’s too bad these few sympathetic moments are drowned out by a cascade of babble.

Julien Donkey-boy starts with a certificate (signed by ) proclaiming that the movie was produced in accordance with the Dogma 95 movement. Dogma was a set of rules set forth by von Trier and other Danish filmmakers intended to make filmmaking more naturalistic: i.e. there should only be handheld cameras, no music added, only natural lighting, etc. In practice, almost no Dogma film ever followed all of these arbitrary rules (although, as Armond White incisively pointed out, almost every amateur porn movie did). Julien Donkey-boy includes a non-diegetic musical score and lots of optical trickery that should have precluded it from being certified as a Dogma film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Korine emerges more clearly this time as a filmmaker exploring the territory where the circus sideshow meets the avant-garde.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric SG, who rhapsodized that it was “frickin’ weird… Korine’s finest/weirdest accomplishment to date.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

NOTE: John Dies at the End has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the official Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A young paranormal investigator relates his strange and twisted backstory to a skeptical reporter. It involves alien creatures, a drug that gives its users heightened senses and psychic abilities, and a parallel universe whose twisted denizens are edging their way into our own.

John-Dies-at-the-End


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its labyrinthine plot and genre-bending themes make John Dies at the End an interesting experience, with plenty of bizarre characters and twists, but at times the film is just weird for the sake of being weird, forsaking good storytelling in the process.

COMMENTS: Blending the well-worn motifs of alien invasion, inter-dimensional travel, and the over-confidence of youth into a heady concoction of oddities, John Dies at the End isn’t easy to summarize, or even encapsulate. The narrative flits back and forth erratically as Dave (Chase Williamson) attempts to communicate his experiences to a bemused journalist played by Paul Giamatti. It all starts—sort of—with a late-night phone call from Dave’s excitable friend John (Rob Mayes), whose ingestion of an out-of-this-world drug known as “Soy Sauce” sends him down a time-traveling, mind-reading, future-predicting rabbit hole. Dave accidentally takes some Soy Sauce himself, and soon he is escaping from a hardened police detective (Glynn Turman) who suspects him of several gruesome murders, while trying to save John and two other high school friends who’ve been kidnapped by a demonic being from an alternate universe. And then a lot of other stuff happens, but not always in chronological order.

Without prior knowledge of the webserial/novel this is based on, John Dies at the End can only be a surprise. It rapidly transitions between wry humor, gross-out gore, paranormal mystery, hallucinatory freak-outs, and sci-fi adventure, all set amidst general confusion. This is the type of film that was made to be a cult classic, with little hope for or interest in appealing to a wide audience. At times this obvious intention to be weird means that the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense, but if you’re looking for straight-up bizarre then it’s not a huge loss. The low-quality special effects are mostly excused by unique visual ideas and some well-placed animation.

With its nonlinear narrative structure and consuming focus on strange happenings, the film doesn’t spend too much time developing characters, and as the protagonist Dave is a little weak: for the most part Williamson just shows off his “Sarcastic Inner Monologue” expression or various reaction faces. He and Mayes are both very regular-seeming guys, the kind you probably knew in high school or college. They are surrounded by a charismatic supporting cast, including the lovably loudmouth Giamatti, the imposing Clancy Brown, the hardcore Glynn Turman, and the naturally creepy Doug Jones. Shuffled about by an intricate story and ever-uncertain motivations, they seem to relish the script’s absurdities.

John Dies at the End is uneven as a whole, driven to episodic distraction with an abundance of half-realized subplots and unanswered questions, but it has a way of worming itself into the brain that results in a kind of fascination. The twisted creatures, unexpected sight gags, colorful settings, and surreal visions create an idiosyncratic aesthetic that’s as funny as it is fantastic. Frozen meat comes to life, mustaches fly through the air, headless zombies attack, alien bugs take over unsuspecting drunk teenagers… By the time Dave and John leap into an alternate dimension populated by nude figures with eerie masks ruled by a giant hyper-intelligent spider monster, I was convinced of its Weirdness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everybody pretty much gets weird throughout this trippy head-shaker of a movie. It’s hard to be sure if the film adds up logically — seems doubtful — but it’s so bizarre you don’t much care.” –Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)