Tag Archives: Insanity

109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre… Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-of institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what the film ‘means.’ It seems as though something is being allegorized, but little in the film helps decode it… [Dwarfs is] indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognize our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation.”–Brad Pager in The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer,

PLOT: As the film begins we infer that a group of people in some sort of institution, possibly a mental asylum, have revolted, and an “instructor” has barricaded himself in a manor house while holding one of them prisoner. As the instructor tries to reason with the rebels and waits for the arrival of the police, the insurgents vandalize the property in increasingly bizarre ways: lighting flower pots on fire, fixing a stolen car so that it circles endlessly around a track and throwing crockery at it, and crucifying a monkey. All parts are played by dwarfs, although the buildings and props are scaled normally.

Still from Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Herzog financed Even Dwarfs Started Small, his second feature, with funds he received when he won the German National Film Award for his first feature film, Signs of Life. Dwarfs was then banned by the German censors on its release.
  • The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands.
  • Herzog partially attributes the dark influences of the film to the fact that before making it he had been imprisoned in a third world prison while shooting footage for another movie in Cameroon in the paranoid weeks after a coup attempt. While incarcerated he contracted a blood parasite and ran a high fever.
  • The production was plagued with problems: one of the dwarfs was struck by the driverless car (he was unscathed), then the same actor caught on fire (he had minor injuries). With the morale among the non-professional troupe low, Herzog promised the actors that if they completed the film, he would jump into a cactus patch and allow them to film it. The actors stuck with it and Herzog fulfilled his end of the bargain.
  • A scene of piglets nursing at what appears to be the corpse of their mother is disturbing and proved highly controversial. The sow’s eyes are shut and it lies almost perfectly still, but its legs clearly jerk during the feeding—though perhaps this is just a post-mortem reflex.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hombre, the tiniest dwarf with the most demonic laugh, nearly chuckling himself to death as he watches a camel struggling to rise to its feet. Watch the scene and share an inexplicable nightmare with millions of other human beings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even the title of Even Dwarfs Started Small starts weird. Wha tfollows is a grotesque parade of cannibalistic chickens, insects dressed as a bride and groom, a crucified monkey, a defecating camel, and dwarfs running amok destroying everything in sight. Presented in bleak black and white in a heartlessly cold documentary style, it’s the gloomiest depiction of the triumph of the irrational ever filmed.


Re-release trailer for Even Dwarfs Started Small

COMMENTS: A provocateur knows he is doing something right when he gets criticized from Continue reading 109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A mentally unbalanced man meets a modern day Marquis de Sade who convinces him to check himself into a bizarre asylum where the patients roam free.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Readers may think I’m a lunatic myself for not inducting this tale involving the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the first ballot.  To tell the truth, Lunacy comes about as close as a movie can to being a first-ballot inductee without making it.  In defense of my decision to leave it off the List for the time being, I point out that Lunacy may actually be Jan Svankajer’s most conventional movie.  If you mentally remove the startling but inessential stop-animation transitions between scenes, then squint hard, it looks like just a regular horror movie; the director insists as much in his prologue to the film.  Given that this is Svankmajer’s most “normal” and accessible movie, if Lunacy makes the List, then all the Czech director’s work should automatically make it.

COMMENTS:  The trailer explains that ” + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.”  It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents should produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing how they actually mix.  Poe adds the least to the recipe, providing mere plot.  Adaptations of two different stories by the doom-laden 19th century Romantic make appearances here; one is a digression from the main plotline that’s fun but unnecessary, while the other supplies the basic conceit for the entire second half of the movie.  Because the first half of the film is devoted to a long introduction to the characters, with that excursion into an interesting but unrelated Poe tale, Lunacy‘s story doesn’t flow as well as it might; the plot doesn’t really get started in earnest until the movie hits the halfway mark on its run time.  Other than basic story ideas, there is not much of a “Poe” feel to the rest of the film, except whatever lingering flavor comes from the passive, psychologically tormented protagonist Jean (stringy-haired, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)

“My title became Shock Corridor. It had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I was dealing with insanity, racism, patriotism, nuclear warfare, and sexual perversion. How could I have been light with those topics? I purposefully wanted to provoke the audience. The situations I’d portray were shocking and scary. This was going to be a crazy film, ranging from the absurd to the unbearable and tragic.”–Sam Fuller, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Samuel Fuller

FEATURING: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Hari Rhodes, Larry Tucker

PLOT: Johnny Barrett is a journalist obsessed with reaching the pinnacle of his profession—winning a Pulitzer Prize—and convinced that an unsolved murder at a mental institution will provide him the investigative opportunity his career needs.  Barrett arranges to have himself committed so he can interview the three patients who witnessed the crime, over the objections of his stripper girlfriend, who fears that he will lose his mind if he enters the asylum.  Once inside, Barrett tries to pry the information he needs out of the three witnesses during their rare lucid moments, but his constant intercourse with madmen, electric shock treatments, and a traumatic incident in the nympho ward take a toll on his own sanity.

Still from Shock Corridor (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • Samuel Fuller, who had made successful and stylish B-pictures like I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Steel Helmet (1951) and Pickup on South Street (1953) for Twentieth Century Fox, began producing his films independently in 1956 to escape studio control.
  • Fuller’s script was inspired by journalist Nellie Bly, who deliberately had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in 1887 in order to write a piece exposing conditions there.
  • Fuller’s first career was as a journalist; he was a crime beat reporter for the New York Evening Graphic at the age of 17.
  • Shock Corridor was made back-to-back with The Naked Kiss (1964), also starring Constance Towers and also dealing with potentially exploitative, shocking subject matter (in Kiss, prostitution and pedophilia).  The two films are usually considered to be spiritual siblings and are often screened together.
  • The corridor set (the “street”) ended in a painted backdrop meant to give the illusion of stretching off to infinity.  Dwarfs were hired as extras to mill about at the end of the hallway to create a false perspective.
  • Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had previously shot The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955), but ended his career lensing schlock like Madmen of Mandoras, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Navy vs. the Night Monsters.
  • The film was shot in about ten days; Fuller friend John Ford dropped by to visit the set and asked, “Sammy, why are you shooting on this two-bit set?” to which Fuller replied, “No major would touch my yarn, Jack.  It’s warped.”
  • The color scenes are composed of unused Japanese location-scouting footage from Fuller’s House of Bamboo, from an unreleased documentary on the Karaja tribe of Brazil, and home movies from a vacation.
  • Fuller claimed that producer Samuel Firks never gave him his promised share of the profits, but was nonetheless happy with the arrangement because the producer allowed the director complete creative control.
  • When Shock Corridor was awarded a special Humanitarian Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Fuller reportedly declined with the words “this isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film, it’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”
  • Shock Corridor was selected for the National Film Registry in 1996 (the prestigious list of films preserved because of their cultural significance stands at only 550 titles as of 2010).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s hard to beat the thunderstorm in the corridor, it’s the scenes of Constance Towers as a naughty angel doing her hoochie-coochie dance in a feather boa on Peter Breck’s shoulder while he tries to grab some shuteye that make the biggest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Though it features its fair share of stormy strum und drang hallucinations, Shock Corridor would be a weird movie even without the schizoid interludes. Fuller’s film imprisons us inside a mental hospital full of  patients who act nothing like normal people—but the uncanny thing is that they don’t act anything like lunatics, either. They act like symbols. Drenching the film with melodramatic performances, expressionist visuals, outlandish dialogue, and blatant sensationalism, Fuller (consciously or unconsciously) constructs a uniquely nightmarish vision of Cold War America as a hyperreal asylum.


Trailers from Hell on Shock Corridor

COMMENTS:After nearly 50 years, Shock Corridor has lost much of its power to shock  Continue reading 80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)

CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, , Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier,

PLOT: The story of a young man’s mental breakdown is told in flashbacks as friends and family are interviewed by a detective outside the home where the killer is holed up with a couple of hostages.

Still from My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s twice as weird as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s other 2009 offering, but only half as entertaining.

COMMENTS:  No movie in the world that could live up to the promise of the credit, “David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film.”  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is among those movies.  Based on a real-life case with the details changed drastically, the film begins with a gruesome murder then proceeds to explain the mystery through flashbacks and trips inside the diseased mind of the killer.  The main problem with the movie is that the answer we get for the slayer’s motivation amounts to little more than “because he’s nuts.”  There’s a top-notch weird cast here, but the performances are uneven.  With his intense eyes under a lowering brow and odd non-sequiturs, Michael Shannon (last seen ’round these parts as the paranoid insectophobe in Bug) is credibly crazed.  In fact, Shannon’s been acting so off-kilter since returning from a kayaking trip to Peru that fiancée Chloë Sevigny and pal Udo Kier don’t appear at all shocked to find themselves being interviewed by homicide detective Willem Dafoe outside the flamingo-pink home where the madman has holed up with two hostages.  Kier, who’s just replaced Shannon in his avant-garde production of the Oresteia because the actor was getting too excitable when asked to play the scene where he murders his mother, is more an outside observer of the man’s madness than a participant, so his cool, politely dismayed reaction to the tragedy is understandable and even a little amusing. On the other hand, it’s hard to figure out why Sevigny is going full steam ahead with honeymoon plans after Shannon tells her he sees Continue reading CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)

65. MANIAC (1934)

AKA Sex Maniac

“Unless you regularly do mushrooms and go to Lady Gaga concerts with your good friend Crispin Glover, then watching Maniac is guaranteed to be the weirdest experience you have ever had.”–ad copy for the Rifftrax version of Maniac

DIRECTED BY: Dwain Esper

FEATURING: Bill Woods

PLOT:  An on-the-lam vaudevillian kills and impersonates his mad scientist employer, driving himself mad in the process.

Maniac (1934)


BACKGROUND:

  • Dwain Esper was a successful building contractor who, it is rumored, only got into the movie business when he came into possession of a cache of filmmaking equipment that was abandoned in a foreclosed property.  He worked outside the film distribution system, taking his exploitation movies on the road and showing them in rented venues, accompanied by lurid advertisements promising forbidden fruit for “adults only.”  Esper obtained the rights to Tod Browning’s Freaks from MGM for a song, and took the movie on the road with his other exploitation hits.  Other films he directed or produced had titles such as Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband.
  • Made outside of the Hollywood system, Maniac was not subject to the Hays Production Code, although it probably ran afoul of most local censorship laws.  Audacious directors like Esper deliberately put racy material into their films that the major studios could not touch.  Maniac contains a scandalous amount of nudity, which had been extremely rare in motion pictures up until that time and was banned outright when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1934.
  • The film incorporates (steals) footage from Maciste in Hell (1925), and reportedly also from Häxan (1920) and Fritz Lang‘s Sigfried (1923), for its delirium sequences.
  • Named one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzie Movie Guide.
  • One gruesome scene involving a cat’s eyeball appears to be a real case of animal abuse, but is almost certainly a convincing illusion.
  • The movie’s ending rips off the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The Black Cat.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are lots of strange, unexpected sights to be seen in this time capsule of man’s freakish desires, but you won’t forget the cat’s eyeball.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDManiac promises to show us the life of a madman as a shameless


Scene from Maniac

pretext for delivering multiple shock scenes in an “educational” context, but the final product is so disjointed, feverish and crazily assembled that it seems to be the work of an actual madman.

COMMENTS: Most bad movies are just bad.  A rare breed are so bad they’re “unintentionally” Continue reading 65. MANIAC (1934)

CAPSULE: SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams

PLOT: A U.S. Marshall with a tragic past investigates a mysterious disappearance at an asylum for the criminally insane on a craggy, isolated Massachusetts island in the 1950s.

Still from Shutter Island (2010)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Scorsese sprinkles a few flakes of weirdness into his mainstream thriller for flavor, but it’s carefully tailored for the mild tastes of the masses.

COMMENTS:  Atmosphere and suspense rule as Scorsese leaves film’s mainland to investigate the genre islands.  With a horror movie aesthetic, a film noir hero and a brainteaser mystery plot, Shutter Island is a mini-history of popular movie mechanics, with some psychology and dark drama thrown in to provide a sense of gravitas.  It’s no masterpiece, but it does effectively draw you into its mysterious labyrinth for two hours.  Overwrought in the best way, this is the type of movie where portentous strings keep coming at the viewer like driving sheets of rain in a hurricane, key scenes take place in darkened cells filled with the criminally insane or in ruined cemeteries, and Nazis, lobotomizing surgeons, and drug-induced hallucinations all play a part in the paranoid plot.  DiCaprio puts in a fine performance as Teddy Daniels, a tough guy whose callous exterior may just be scar tissue from the wounds he’s suffered in a tough life.  A war veteran who was present at the liberation of the Dachau death camps, Daniels may have committed acts that still haunt him; returning home, he turns to booze and then quickly suffers further tragedy when he loses his young wife to a violent tragedy.  Guilt, regret and lust for revenge haunt our hero, and impede his investigation of the murderess who’s disappeared from her locked cell as surely as does administrator Ben Kingsley’s odd reluctance to hand over patient medical files to the two federal marshals.  Scorsese plumbs DiCaprio’s psyche for spooky dream sequences, such as one where he embraces his dead wife while ash falls around them like snow; as the scene progresses her back turn into a burning cinder, while a cascade of blood simultaneously soaks the front of her dress.  As the flick progresses, reality becomes plastic and the seeming illogic of the plot increases; DiCaprio’s flashbacks and dreams take up a larger portion of the action and sometimes bleed into the real world.  Despite a mounting sense of weirdness, though, all is resolved rationally at the end.

You may guess the final twist, or you may not.  The true test of a mystery/thriller is not whether the twist ending surprises you—it’s a bonus if it does and will make the movie a classic, but there are only so many unthought-of tricks that a director can deploy without cheating.  Our capacity to be surprised depends more on cinematic inexperience than anything else.  The true virtue of a thriller is not to fool us but to put us inside the endangered shoes of the protagonist, and fill us with doubts as to our safety, understanding, even sanity.  When this movie’s clicking, the suspense is high and the Gothic atmosphere is thick and beautiful, making it well worth the short ferry ride out to Shutter Island.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like a Hardy Boys mystery directed by David Lynch.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JANNIE TOTSIENS [JOHNNY FAREWELL] (1970)

The “Reader Recommendation” category includes films nominated by our readers as deserving of consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

by Trevor Moses, film archivist at the National Film, Video and Sound Archives (South Africa)

DIRECTED BY: Jans Rautenbach

FEATURING: Cobus Rossouw, Jill Kirkland, Hermien Dommisse, Phillip Swanepoel, Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Lourens Schultz, Patrick Mynhardt, Betty Botha, Sandra Kotze, George Pearce, Jacques Loots.

PLOT: A catatonic mathematics professor with an Oedipus complex (as if the poor man didn’t have enough hassles already) is committed to an asylum which is a microcosm of South African society, circa 1970.  The inmates band together to attempt to restore him to life once more and when one of their number commits suicide because of him, they then attempt something more on his behalf: murder.

Still from Jannie Totsiens (1970)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LISTJannie Totsiens is rather like Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, only far, far more weird, disturbing and funny than that Oscar winning film.  Jans Rautenbach’s film is a microcosmic view of South Africa circa 1970 and an indictment of the blinkered Afrikaner Nationalist enforced attitudes and very dubious morals of the time.

COMMENTS: Allegedly autobiographical in tone, this was South Africa’s first film in the avant-garde genre, one of its very few horror films, and also its first black comedy.  It is now known to be an allegory about the South African situation in 1970 – showing said situation and the country’s inhabitants in the milieu of a home for the insane whose inmates’ lives are flipped by the arrival of a catatonic, mute mathematics professor, the “angel of discord”, as he is referred to by one of the loonies.  Among this merry little band, we find a jilted bride (Hermien Dommisse) whose wedding portrait depicts her holding the hand of a faceless man who locked her up in this house until she went insane, a knife wielding nymphomaniac with Bible thumping parents (Katinka Heyns), an ex Ossewabrandwag soldier with an uncanny resemblance to John Vorster (Don Leonard), a judge (Jacques Loots) who went mad (and consequently hangs up the plants in the asylum’s hothouse in a makeshift gallows) after his daughter’s killer was let off scot free, and a psychotic, lovesick woman (Jill Kirkland) who continuously writes unsent letters to her dead daughter.  Other characters include the sane, disabled artist Frans (Phillip Swanepoel) whose parents locked him up in the asylum because they were ashamed of him, and the Director of the asylum (Lourens Schultz), a weak-willed, gambling, drinking good-for-nothing, almost as mad as those he cares for, whose only purpose in life is to give injections and make his inmates swallow pills.  The seemingly mad and mother-fixated Jannie Pienaar  was supposedly based both on director Jans Rautenbach’s treatment by the critics and some of the more sensitive sections of the South African community, and Rautenbach’s experiences as a clinical psychologist.  He finds himself restored to life because of two major factors: a love triangle which involves him and two of the inmates and the horrific finale when, on the suicide of one of those inmates, Jannie is condemned to death by hanging.  For real.  Not by his neck, but by his feet.

One would have to go very far back or far forward into the future of the South African film industry’s history to find a film as horrific, comic (yes, it is very funny in parts) and perfect as this, with brooding photography (courtesy David Dunn Yarker and Koos Roets, ACS ), an eerie credits puppet show in which the spectre of death intrudes and is frightened away, haunting music by Sam Sklair and oppressive, claustrophobic set and art design.  To unsuspecting first time viewers, this film’s impact is still felt months and years later.  Judging by its’ initial reception in 1970, it is clear that the movie going public in South Africa did not know that they were actually looking into a mirror with themselves as the subjects, notwithstanding the fact that each viewer of this film feels like they have just been dinged on the head with a very large, heavy board when the film ends.

Bruce Lee says in Enter The Dragon, “Boards….. don’t hit back.”  This one does.

This film is available solely in the Afrikaans language and can be purchased from kalahari.net.

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian [AKA Rinse Dream]

FEATURING:  Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin

PLOT:  The granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) performs illicit neurological experiments on patients in her asylum, focusing especially on a nymphomaniac and a shock-therapy addicted cannibal.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  This is a good time to explain that the category “Borderline Weird” does not refer solely to a movie’s inherent strangeness, but to whether it’s both weird and effective enough to rank among the most recommended weird movies ever made.  No doubt about it, Dr. Caligari is about as weird as they come, and would make a list of “weirdest movies regardless of quality” on first pass.  The problem is that this movie is held back by amateurism in the production (especially the acting) and a lack of focus in the story.  I wouldn’t feel ashamed elevating it onto the official List of 366 films, but I wouldn’t want it to take the place of a more serious and professionally produced film, either, so Dr. Caligari will be locked up in the Borderline Weird asylum until I figure out what to do with this curious case.

COMMENTS: The origin and history of Dr. Caligari is almost as strange as the film itself.  Director Stephen Sayadian is better known as Rinse Dream, the creator of arty avant-garde hardcore porn films with ambitions of crossing over into the mainstream.  His Café Flesh (1982), the story of a post-apoclayptic future where most of the population consists of “sex negatives” forced to obtain erotic fulfillment vicariously by watching “sex positives” perform, was generally well-reviewed and very nearly the crossover hit Sayadian craved.  It and was released in theaters in an R-rated version for those with tender sensibilities.  Seven years later, the director again attempted to return to the mainstream with this, his only work aimed directly at an audience not wearing raincoats and sunglasses.  Intended as a midnight movie, Dr. Caligari had some limited success in LA theaters, and then gained a small but devoted following when released on video.

Dr. Caligari never got a proper DVD release, however, and fell out of the public eye; most Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)