Tag Archives: Low budget

293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

“From the very beginning, back in 1957, people were always commenting on my films being a little weird in subject matter, and the angles I used, and the superimpositions and things like that.  Me, I figured that it came from the fact that I was self-taught and missed the technological colonization of the white aesthetic. Anyhow, back then everybody just thought I was crazy.”–Melvin Van Peebles, “The Real Deal: What It Was... Is”

DIRECTED BY: Melvin Van Peebles

FEATURING: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, John Gallaghan

PLOT: An African American boy grows to manhood in a brothel, where he is nicknamed “Sweetback” for his sexual prowess and taught to perform in live sex shows when he reaches adulthood. One night two detectives perform a fake arrest on Sweetback as part of a political scheme; but when they beat a black activist while Sweetback watches, he beats the two policemen into a coma in a fit a righteous rage. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive as he makes his way toward the Mexican border on foot, staying one step ahead of the cops as his legend grows within the black community.

Stillfrom Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Melvin Van Peebles’ personal history is colorful, to say the least. He began his career making short films, and one feature, in France. On the strength of these Columbia Pictures invited him to direct a feature film. His first Hollywood feature, the racial satire Watermelon Man, was a small hit. Columbia offered him a three picture deal, but he chose to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song instead.
  • Van Peebles says that he played the role himself because he couldn’t find an established black actor willing to take it due to the fact that they pay was so low and Sweetback only has six lines of dialogue in the film.
  • Van Peebles says he actually had sex with the actresses while shooting film’s sex scenes, and contracted gonorrhea from one. He says he applied to the director’s guild for compensation and that they were so surprised by the claim that they paid him. He then used the money to buy more film.
  • The soundtrack was written by Van Peebles and performed by a pre-fame Earth, Wind and Fire, the same year their debut album. The check bounced.
  • Van Peebles ran out of money while filming Sweetback and begged investors to help him finish the movie. Finally, Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000, interest-free, to finish the movie. The film went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office and eventually earning more than $10 million. Van Peebles was able to keep all the profits himself.
  • Sweetback was rated X by the MPAA and prints were often screened with up to 9 minutes of sex removed, inspiring Van Peebles to promote the movie with the sensational (but technically accurate) tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
  • The remarkable story behind the making of Sweetback is told in the fictionalized 2003 film Baadasssss!, written, directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario. Mario had also played Sweetback as a boy in Baadassss Song, where he was pressured into performing a sex scene with an adult actress.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sweetback running. Runner-up: Sweetback sprinting. We also considered Sweetback loping, Sweetback jogging, and Sweetback trotting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sex will make you a man; the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother; lizard lunch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD Take a radical experimental filmmaker with narcissistic tendencies, give him $150,000 dollars (in 1971 money) and an amateur cast and crew, give him carte blanche to make a Black Power film with lots of sex scenes, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the result. You’d think it was a deconstructionist version of a blaxploitation film, except that it was made before the blaxploitation formula existed.

Clips from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song

COMMENTS: In 1971 the Civil Rights movement was almost two Continue reading 293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

CAPSULE: BLACK DEVIL DOLL (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Lewis

FEATURING: ” Mubia Abul-Jama,” Heather Murphy, Martin Boone

PLOT: A Black Panther, executed for the “rape and brutal murders of fifteen Caucasian women,” finds his soul transported into a ventriloquist’s dummy; he then resumes his evil ways.

Still from Black Devil Doll (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not need to get into a deep discussion here: Black Devil Doll is simply too silly, spoofy and self-aware to count as weird.

COMMENTS: First things first: Black Devil Doll isn’t an homage to the charmingly naive Black Devil Doll from Hell so much as it is an afro-remake of Child’s Play, with added interracial rape. Basically what we have here is a trashy soft porn feature starring zaftig strippers acting opposite a racial stereotype puppet: cheap, offensive trash, and proud of it. Anyone who’s not tolerant of gleeful overuse of the n-word, boundary-pushing racial humor or blatant misogyny will want to steer clear of this movie—it’s trying to trigger you. Among its bad taste stunts are X-rated cartoons, puppet sex scenes, copious puppet semen, lesbian Twister, an emasculated wigger, Bill Cosby seduction techniques, rape and killing (not necessarily in the order), vomiting, caustic diarrhea… you know, “can’t we all just get along?” kind of stuff. It ends with the strippers-cum-actresses giving the puppet a lap dance over the credits, and a post-credits sequence (by another director) and with the devil doll killing a delivery guy from “Oakland Fried Chicken,” the only fast food outlet with a genuine Sambo on the label. The actresses have names like “Natasha Talonz” and “Precious Cox,” and it was naturally “rated X by an all white jury.” It’s real woke.

Black Devil Doll comes awfully close to earning a “” rating, but has enough virtues to just barely skate by. The James Bond-esque opening credits, with voluptuous silhouetted ladies undulating across a landscape of fire and blood, are actually rather amazing, looking far more expensive than the rest of the movie. They are credited to cinematographer/editor John Osteen, who also inserts a couple of hip-hop montages during the doll’s, er, climaxes, which feature blazing fires, morphing effects and flashes of scenes from the civil rights movement (!) Osteen is more talented than anyone else on the cast and crew, although like the rest he was never heard from again. The funky vintage waka-waka instrumentals aren’t bad, either, although the sexy car wash rap is atrocious (deliberately so). Finally, there are just enough guilty-pleasure politically incorrect chuckles to counteract the painfully insulting ones: “Of course I love you, you dumb-ass ho!,” references to a “half-puppet mulatto baby,” and the classic feminist one-liner, “I’ll buy a dildo.” The final point in the movie’s favor is its brevity and brisk pacing: it has the good sense to keep its provocations to just over an hour, although probably for budgetary reasons rather than out of an abundance of good sense.

Black Devil Doll was made by a black director, because no white director could get away with it. The rest of the cast is all-white (although there may be some mixed blood in there), and the entire thing seems to be a side project of the “Boone brothers,” a pair of Confederate crackers who ran their own straight-to-video mini-empire of catfighting comedy videos called “Brawlin’ Broads” (directed by Osteen). The fact that this comedy about a stereotypical black rapist preying on topless white women seems to have been made by white producers aiming at a white trash audience makes it all the more uncomfortable. At any rate, director Lewis won’t be winning any Image Awards anytime soon.

The DVD contains a surprising number of special features, including two commentaries (one in-character by the devil doll, the other by the cast, neither very amusing or enlightening) and an audience reaction track from the premiere. There are also trailers, behind-the-scenes videos from the premiere and a convention appearance, a videotaped interview, and three (in)decent animations from Rich Moyer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part homage to the hilarious surrealism of Petey Wheatstraw and, to some, a respectful rip-off of Chester Novell Turner’s Black Devil Doll From Hell, this outrageous example of Joe Bob Briggs’ patented ‘three Bs – breasts, blood, and beasts’ is so insane, so silicon injected and silly that it’s almost impossible to take seriously.”–Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (DVD)

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

288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)

Weirdest!

“At this point I had realized that Damon’s film was like a Zen riddle. The more you tried to understand it with rational thought, the more it’s true meaning eluded you. I’d learned just to sit back and enjoy the experience.”–Thad Vassmer, “The Making of Reflections of Evil

DIRECTED BY: Damon Packard

FEATURING: Damon Packard, Nicole Vanderhoff

PLOT: Bob is a grossly overweight man trying to make a living peddling watches on the streets of present-day L.A. In flashback, we learn that his sister Julie died of an overdose in the 1970s. Julie’s spirit seeks out Bob with an important message from beyond the grave, which she eventually delivers to him at Universal Studios theme park.

Still from Reflections of Evil (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • Packard self-funded the film with an inheritance he received—one source estimated it at $500,000. He spent everything on the film and was broke immediately afterwards.
  • Packard sent out over 20,000 original DVDs he paid to have pressed for free, sending many to celebrities. He published some of their reactions on the movie’s now-defunct official website.
  • Reflections of Evil encountered serious distribution problems because of its unlicensed use of copyrighted material (such as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships”). Packard recut the film in 2004 to avoid these issues (we review a different cut here).
  • Per the end credits, Universal Studios “permanently banned” Packard (presumably due to his guerilla shooting on their property).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bob’s massive, angry face seems to fill about every third or fourth frame. You’d be safe picking any one of the many warped camera tricks Packard uses to make his own bloated visage appear even more grotesque.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Young Spielberg’s death set; the Golden Guru; Schindler’s List: The Ride

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hiding behind the generic title Reflections of Evil (presumably chosen because Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid was already taken) is one of the most personal and peculiar movies ever made: a  homemade mélange of bizarre editing, black helicopters, vintage 1970s commercials, angry L.A. street people, barking dogs, a barking watch salesman, a ghost in a see-through nightgown, and so much more. Repetitive, abrasive, grotesque, and intermittently brilliant, Reflections will shatter your mind, leaving you wondering whether you’ve just watched the magnum opus of a crude genius or a the manifesto of a genuine madman.


Trailer for Reflections of Evil

COMMENTS: Although there is a loose story to Reflections of Evil, if Continue reading 288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)

LIST CANDIDATE: IDAHO TRANSFER (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand

PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.

Still from Idaho Transfer (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.

COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?

With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.

At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.

“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)

Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):

CAPSULE: PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)

DIRECTED BY: David Hartman

FEATURING: , , Angus Scrimm

PLOT: Reggie and Mikey try to thwart the Tall Man’s  plans to dominate our world, slipping between different realities as things build toward an explosive showdown in a post-apocalyptic America.

Still from Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While this is the second-least-straight-forward movie in the five-film franchise, Phantasm: Ravager isn’t quite worthy of a Certified slot (an honor that perhaps should be reserved solely for the original entry). Certainly there are time slips, an unreliable narrator, and the ever-nebulous Tall Man, but everything’s well grounded in context. Gargantuan Sentinel Spheres looming over a blasted metropolis do provide a pretty weird sight, though.

COMMENTS: The Tall Man waits for no man. In this, the (allegedly) final chapter of the long-running Phantasm franchise, his assault on mankind reaches a crescendo in a whirl-wind of Plymouth Barracuda stunts, reality jumps, and spheres both large and small. Passing the reigns on to David Hartman, Don Coscarelli readies himself for his post-Phantasm career. But Phantasm: Ravager is still very much Coscarelli’s baby, and he bears that responsibility with all due gravity. And just what kind of final chapter are the fans given? As one wag from Variety quipped, “It’s kinda-sorta like an Alain Resnais movie, only with zombie dwarfs.

Hewing to precedent, Phantasm V picks up right where Phantasm IV left off, with the Reg-man (Reggie Bannister) emerging from the barren distance with his quad-shotgun over his shoulder. He’s just come back from the Tall Man’s world to find his ‘Cuda has been jacked. He is not a happy camper. Events proceed, spheres appear, and then something odd happens. With a gasp, we see Reggie again, being pushed in a wheelchair by long-time friend Mikey (A. Michael Baldwin). Our dear hero may not be a hero so much as a poor old man succumbing to dementia. Or…maybe not. Time and space keep shuffling, and as we hear Reggie’s story, a new adventure unfurls that shows a future grimmer, perhaps, than mental decay. The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) has laid waste to large swaths of humanity and Mikey, after years of being pursued by the Tall Man, now finds himself leading the resistance.

It’s clear early on that Phantasm: Ravager is for the fans. I mean this as no criticism, but this movie has little to offer those just jumping on the Phantasm bandwagon. This series became a by-word for clever low-budget horror, and it does not disappoint in this installment. CGI abounds here, but enthusiasts will hopefully be forgiving: the vision for Ravager requires a much larger canvas than the original. The editing of the narrative keeps you on your toes, and much like the four preceding pictures, Ravager‘s claim of explaining all the mysteries is undermined by considerable ambiguity. As a director, David Hartman keeps things novel, with perhaps his greatest coup being that by the end, the audience is hoping that it’s not the story of an Alzheimer’s victim, but that the world as we know it has been done in by gargantuan laser-equipped flying balls.

Staggered over the years (’79, ’88, ’94, ’98, and 2016), the franchise  has maintained a grip on a large group of horror fans. The movies’ linchpin—the Tall Man—stands as one of the great figures of horror film history. Angus Scrimm was pushing 90 when filming began, and while Phantasm: Ravager won’t go down in history as a great movie, there’s something gratifying about the fact that he got one more go-around in the role that made him famous. Ravager is an adequate capstone to a film series that, against all odds, made itself an institution. Certainly more “horror” than “weird,” the Phantasm phenomenon is well worth a look: a look that we will soon give with the review of the holy-mega-totally-comprehensive Phantasm Blu-ray box set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the surreal thing, a time-tripping, dimension-hopping whirligig that suggests ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (or, better still, Resnais’ ‘Je t’aime, je t’aime’) reconstituted as the fever dream of a horror-fantasy aficionado.”–Joe Leydon, Variety (contemporaneous)

282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

“Do you know what madness is, or how it strikes? Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind? Do you know that in the world of the insane you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction? A truth… that will shock you!”–Opening narration from Daughter of Horror

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Parker

FEATURING: Adrienne Barret, Bruno VeSota, Ed MacMahon (voice in Daughter of Horror cut)

PLOT: A nameless woman awakens from a nightmare and makes her way out onto the city streets. She meets a wealthy man and agrees to go with him, and imagines a bloody family drama enacted in graveyard while riding in his limousine. Later, she stabs the man and throws his body off his penthouse balcony; she is then pursued by a cop with the face of her father, who chases her into a jazz club.

Still from Dementia (Daughter of Horror) (1955)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film contains no dialogue, although it’s not technically a silent film as some sound effects can be heard.
  • Director John Parker has only Dementia and one short film (a dry run for this feature) in his filmography. We know little about him except that his parents were in the film distribution business.
  • Star Adrienne Barrett was Parker’s secretary, and the film was inspired by a nightmare she related to Parker.
  • Co-star and associate producer Bruno VeSota is perhaps better known for his work as a character actor in numerous pictures, including a memorable turn as a cuckolded husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches. VeSota later claimed to have co-written and co-directed the film (no director is listed in the credits).
  • Cinematographer William C. Thompson also lensed Maniac (1934) and Glen or Glenda? (1953), making him the rare craftsman to serve on three separate Certified Weird movies (all for different directors).
  • Dwarf (Freaks) plays the uncredited “newsboy.”
  • The score was written by one-time bad boy composer George Antheil, whose career had plummeted into film and TV scoring after having once been the toast of Paris’ avant-garde with “Ballet Mechanique” (1924).
  • Dementia was submitted to the New York Censor’s board in 1953, and refused a certificate (they called it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”—which they didn’t mean as praise). It was approved in 1955 after cuts. (Reportedly they requested removal of shots of the severed hand). The film was banned in Britain until 1970 (!)
  • After failing to find success in its original dialogue-free form, Dementia was re-released in 1957 with narration (from future late night talk show sidekick Ed McMahon) and retitled Daughter of Horror.
  • Daughter of Horror is the movie teenagers are watching in the theater when the monster strikes in The Blob.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our protagonist (the “Gamin”) surrounded by faceless onlookers, who silently and motionlessly stare at her victim’s corpse. (Daughter of Horror‘s narrator unhelpfully informs us that these unearthly figurants are “the ghouls of insanity”).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Precognitive headline; graveyard memories; throw on a dress

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A skid row nightmare, Dementia dips into post-WWII repression and exposes the underbelly of the American night. It’s a boozy odyssey through a netherworld of newsboys, flower peddlers, pimps, murderers, and hot jazz, with our heroine pursued by cops and faceless demons. It’s noirish, expressionist, and nearly silent, except when Ed MacMahon interrupts the proceedings with pulpy purple prose. Perhaps it was not quite “the strangest motion picture ever offered for distribution,” as Variety famously claimed, but, warts and all, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. It was too much naked id for its time, taking the spirit of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and channeling it into a guilt-drenched B-movie dream.


Original trailer for Daughter of Horror

COMMENTS: The first thing the Gamin sees when she wakes from Continue reading 282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

277. INDECENT DESIRES (1968)

“[Wishman] seemed genuinely surprised, even skeptical, that anyone could find her work worthy of study, probably because at first glance her films often reveal such trademark low-budget production values as dodgy lighting and interiors resembling rundown motel rooms. Yet behind her economically deprived visuals lie a wealth of imagination: wildly improbable plots, bizarre ‘method’ acting and scripts yielding freely to fantasy.”–“Incredibly Strange Films

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sharon Kent, Michael Alaimo, Trom Little, Jackie Richards

PLOT: A nebbishy pack rat finds a ring and a blonde doll in a trash can; soon after, he sees secretary Ann walking to work, then sees the image of the doll overlaid on Ann’s body. Returning to his dingy apartment, he puts on the ring and gropes the doll, and Ann feels invisible hands on her as she stands by the water cooler. The stalker follows Ann home after she leaves work, discovers she has a steady boyfriend, and takes out his jealousy on the doll.

Still from Indecent Desires (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Doris Wishman, who had worked in film distribution, began her directing career after her husband died at a young age as a way to keep busy. She originally began working in the brief nudist camp genre, movies that rushed to exploit nudity after a New York judge ruled that stories set within the nudist lifestyle were not per se obscene. After the fad for nudist films, and the “nudie cutie” sub-genre that grew out of them, died out, Wishman moved into the production of “roughies,” a sexploitation genre with less actual nudity but more violence and kink. She was one of the only women directing such films at the time. Indecent Desires comes from the middle of this period, which lasted roughly from 1965’s Bad Girls Go to Hell to 1970’s The Amazing Transplant.
  • Wishman’s 1960s movies were mostly shot without sound. Dialogue was dubbed in later. She often directed longtime cameraman C. Davis Smith to focus the camera on ashtrays,  potted plants, or an actress’ feet instead of the person speaking in order to make the sound syncing easier later. This technique initially confused audiences, but later became recognized as a Wishman trademark.
  • Like most of her work of this period, Wishman used “Louis Silverman” as her directing pseudonym and “Dawn Whitman” as her writing pseudonym.
  • Terri McSorley‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The image of the blonde trash can doll superimposed over Ann as she walks to work. This sight is the closest thing to a special effect to ever appear in one of Wishman’s movies.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Doll-groping transient; Babs makes out with herself; nude leg lifts

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Doris Wishman made sleazy sexploitation movies marked by their strange camerawork, unsynced sound, grimy settings, amateur acting by curvy models in lingerie, odd plots, burlesque house jazz soundtracks, and a weird, pervasive sense of erotic guilt. Indecent Desires features her usual shenanigans delivered in one of her most inexplicable stories: a tale of a symbiotic relationship between a stalker, a doll, and a beautiful woman that is so context-free it serves as a fill-in-the-blank sexual parable. It’s perhaps her strangest and most disconnected plot, which makes it the perfect item to represent Wishman on the List of the Weirdest Movies of all Time.

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Short clip from Indecent Desires

COMMENTS: Whatever her filmmaking talents, or lack of same, Continue reading 277. INDECENT DESIRES (1968)

275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

“God gave him a calling in life, and that was to make pornography.”–George Kuchar on Curt McDowell

DIRECTED BY: Curt McDowell

FEATURING: Marion Eaton, Melinda McDowell, Moira Benson, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Rick Johnson, Maggie Pyle,

PLOT: On a dark and stormy night in the Nebraska hinterlands, several individuals on the road end up taking shelter at “Prairie Blossom”, an old dark house that is the dominion of alcoholic matron Gert Hammond (Eaton). Everyone present has secrets and obsessions that are brought to light, and pair off in various combinations for sexual liaisons. The group also finds itself trapped inside the house by a gorilla rampaging outside.

Still from Thundercrack! (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Producers John Thomas (who briefly appeared as country singer Simon Cassidy) and Charles Thomas were film students of Thundercrack! actor/writer George Kuchar, classmates of director Curt McDowell, and heirs to a fortune from the Burger Chef fast food chain, which they used to fund the movie. They also provided a rooms in their home for the shoot.
  • George Kuchar was a legend in the underground film industry, making hundred of short, campy avant-garde films together with his twin brother Mike. Noteworthy titles include Sins of the Fleshapoids and Hold Me While I’m Naked (both from 1966).
  • Actress Melinda McDowell was director Curt McDowell’s sister.
  • Kuchar and McDowell were rumored to be lovers.
  • The movie was shot for $9,000 and $40,000 in deferred costs.
  • Buck Henry used his clout as a judge to set up a (scandalous) screening at the 1976 Los Angeles Film Festival.
  • The original negatives disappeared and only five 16mm prints of the film were struck. One print was seized by Canadian authorities and three had been edited in an ineffectual attempt to make the film more marketable. The badly-damaged but uncut fifth print was primarily utilized for the transfer of the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release by Synapse Films.
  • El Rob Hubbard’s[1] Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Among the various obvious (and mainly pornographic) images to choose from, the one that sums up the spirit of Thundercrack! is the publicity photo of Gert and Bing in a melodramatic clinch—Bing in a wedding dress, Gert staring off into the horizon. It’s iconic, yet subversive, and pretty much encapsulates the film’s mood.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Versatile cucumbers; pickled husbands; amorous bipeds

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The collision of several elements: the lurid melodramatics along with the hardcore action, the visual stylization and the complex wordplay, all combine to make a film much more engaging and—dare I say it—innocent than one would expect from a mid 1970s hardcore sex parody film. Or, is it a parody film with porno elements? You decide…


Brief scene from Thundercrack!

COMMENTS: “What the heck is going on here—some sort of communal therapy group? Is that what this is?!!”—Bing

That’s probably a fair assessment of Thundercrack!, Curt McDowell’s Continue reading 275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

  1. Fun Fact: actress “Maggie Pyle” and her husband (one of the crew members) were my landlords for a short time in San Francisco in the early 90’s. []

270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”―Henry David Thoreau

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: David Blair

FEATURING: David Blair

PLOT: A “supernatural photographer” and beekeeper searching for evidence of the afterlife buys a hive of rare, disease-resistant Mesopotamian bees. Years later, his grandson Jacob, who works as a software engineer designing flight simulators for warplanes, inherits the insects. The hive gives him visions, then drones pierce his skin and insert a crystal—which allows him to see the bees’ version of television—to direct him in his destiny as a metaphysical assassin.

Still from Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wax took six years to complete and was partially funded with grants from German Public Television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and other private and state charitable endowments.
  • Jacob’s grandfather, James “Hive” Maker, is played by (in a non-speaking role).
  • First broadcast on German television in 1991, this shot-on-video feature never received a true theatrical release, although it was blown up to 16mm film for limited screenings in 1993.
  • The New York Times reported that Wax was be the first feature-length motion picture to be broadcast on the Internet.
  • A “hypermedia” version of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is available for free viewing at a site hosted by the University of Virginia. The movie is available to watch or download for free on Vimeo under a Creative Commons license.
  • Two years ago, Blair said that he was still working on a sequel, which has been in progress for at least seven years.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, in a movie with so many digital distortions and abstract psychedelic graphics, it’s the shots of Jacob in his white beekeeping suit that stick in the mind the most—because, absurdly, he almost never takes it off, whether trudging through the steaming desert or walking past banks of supercomputers at his job at a military facility. Even when cuddling with his wife in front of the TV, he only takes off his hat. The suit becomes both a symbol of Jacob’s insular insanity, and a low budget substitute for a spacesuit a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jacob ventures into cosmic realms far beyond ordinary human conception.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Semi-intelligent missiles; the dead on the Moon; the Planet of Television

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a “documentary” about a man who is sent to the Planet of the Dead via bee television in order to kill the reincarnation of his grandfather’s brother-in-law, thereby becoming Cain, before being reincarnated in paradise. I think. The story is utterly insane, although it makes complete sense to bees.

Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees [10:00/85:00] from David Blair on Vimeo.

The first ten minutes of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

COMMENTS: When I first watched Wax, or the Discovery of Television Continue reading 270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

366 UNDERGROUND: MARVELOUS MANDY (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Chase Dudley

FEATURING: Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Jonathan Stottmann, Keith Nicholson

PLOT: A lonely single father falls in love with the author of his daughter’s favorite books, only to discover that she may not be all she seems.

Still from Marvelous Mandy (2016)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marvelous Mandy is a straightforward Secret Sociopath thriller. Early misdirection helps create a certain confusion about the kind of movie we’re in for, but once the killing starts, it’s merely a race to each successive murder. Despite brief jaunts into the headspace of the two leads, there’s very little here that’s weird beyond the psychopathy of the killer.

COMMENTS: Before going any further, let’s be clear that this is absolutely loaded with SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I’m giving away everything. With that in mind, let’s start with a fundamental question that Marvelous Mandy raises about horror-slasher-thriller movies.

Do you kill the kid?

The horror genre, perhaps more than any other, requires constant re-invention to maintain freshness in the eyes of its audience. How many ways can you find to yell “boo”? What happens when blood isn’t enough? Do you add in intestines? Where can you go after gore, other than more gore? Can you succeed entirely through twists and misdirections like M. Night Shyamalan, or do you pursue the nobody-gets-out-alive nihilism of an Eli Roth? Each movie must walk a delicate line, between restraint and wild abandon, between growing unease and sudden shock.

So, is killing the kid a step too far, signifying a plotter’s desperation, or possibly even an unsettled mind? Or is it a sign of the filmmaker’s purity of intent, preying on inherent fears, doing whatever is necessary to get a rise out of a jaded audience? The kind of movie you’re dealing with relies very heavily upon how the filmmaker has answered this question. (Speaking personally, I gave up on “CSI” after kids kept turning up on the slab too often, so my tolerance registers pretty low. But I understand the storytelling impulse.)

Marvelous Mandy attempts the difficult dance of being a little bit of both. Screenwriter (and Great Name Hall of Famer) Brentt Slabchuck introduces us to Harvey,  a dedicated dad and wannabe stand-up comic with no chops who is so desperate for love that he makes an embarrassing plea to a way-too-young barista in front of half of Louisville. He then pairs this lovable loser with Mandy, a woman who projects instability from the first frame, a children’s author mysteriously slumming as a bookstore clerk who spurs every man who crosses her path to make some very ill-informed decisions. The film tries to play with suspense by extending Harvey’s ignorance of his danger long past the point where we see his peril, but because we’ve seen Mandy in action (which is not her real name), the only mystery remaining is when he will finally catch up to us, and whether it will be in time to make a difference. Harvey turns out to be a lot sharper than other men, but the die is cast.

Although Marvelous Mandy is a semi-professional production, director Dudley has assembled a game and determined cast. As Harvey, Stottmann is convincing as a man who knows he’s in over his head but unbowed, while Solinger plays Mandy’s madness to the hilt. There are also nice turns in the supporting cast, including Ryley Nicole as Mandy’s delightfully pissy co-worker, and Kenna Hardin, natural as Harvey’s faithful daughter.  But the true standout is Keith Nicholson as a jovial, Stetson-wearing, tea-chugging private eye who does all the due diligence that nobody else manages to accomplish. Arriving in the third act to pursue Harvey’s spot-on suspicions about Mandy, he’s a breath of fresh air, wearing his enthusiasm and his character quirks loudly and proudly.

Dudley himself has some keen directorial instincts. He uses locations well, and he films Mandy’s violent attacks with skillful verisimilitude. Most impressive is a Hitchcockian tracking shot that begins with an attack and continues outside a house while the fight rages on, only catching up to the actors again at the end of the bloody assault.

Marvelous Mandy hints at certain ideas that might have taken the plot into unexplored territory. What would cause a children’s author’s mind to bisect into nurturing and violent halves? Would a man yearning for love still accept if it came with a dark side? What makes one man succumb to the lure of a femme fatale while another resists her deadly charms? Any of these might have lent shading or novelty to a subspecies of the genre—the Fatal Attraction trope—that threatens to become tired and boring. It never quite makes the turn on any of these, though, content instead to offer a woman with a messed-up brain and a drive for murder, and to turn her loose to do her thing.

Because, Mandy? She kills the kid. Turns out to be that kind of movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marvelous Mandy is a darkly enjoyable movie that really doesn’t let on what it’s about until you’re already sucked in to then twist and turn into directions not thought possible…. add to that the film’s colour chart that for the most part feels a bit off and unreal, a directorial effort that stays away from spectacle to give the story space to breathe, and a great cast, and you’ve got yourself a really cool movie!”–Mike Haberfelner, [re] Search My Trash