Tag Archives: Mental illness

366 UNDERGROUND: THE SYNTHETIC MAN (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: April Hand, Jeff Hartley, Beverley Promersberger, Mike Engle, Megan Peterson, Esaw Parker Jr., Britney Land

Still from The Synthetic Man (2013)

PLOT: A young woman (April Hand) filled with anxiety and paranoia escapes into herself and creates a fantasy world involving ancient aliens who control the human race through the”Synthetic Man,” a figure shrouded in mystery who may hold the key to the woman’s tangled past.

COMMENTS: Imagine watching a really low-budget and serious (non-comedy) version of Gentlemen Broncos and you’ll have a clear idea of what it’s like to sit through The Synthetic Man. This is the third feature from John R. Hand, whose previous work I haven’t encountered yet—and I think I’ll keep it that way, judging from this latest effort. There are some interesting ideas here, but they’re undone by questionable execution.

Essentially the film is an extended look inside the mind of Iris, who is already obviously disturbed—we are introduced to her in the midst of her dream of being groped by a gloved figure. She appears to live an isolated existence; she has no friends or family or boyfriend and she never appears to have any interaction with any other person. Her only outlet is writing a novel, a science-fiction novel she calls ‘The Synthetic Man,” a title taken from one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books she finds in the library. It’s also the name she gives to her dream groper, and via watching really bad science fiction television programs combined with her own fevered imagination, she creates an oft-told tale of aliens controlling humanity through the titular character. Most of the movie is a dramatization of this novel, which gets increasingly violent and culminates with The Synthetic Man raping and impregnating random human females.

Someone once remarked that there’s nothing more boring than watching junkies onscreen for over an hour; that can be amended to there’s nothing more boring than watching sexually frustrated paranoid schizophrenics create fourth-rate pulp science-fiction/sexual-fantasy for over an hour. Perhaps the Europeans can actually pull off something like this and have it be an artistic triumph, but it seems to be just a bit beyond Mr. Hand’s grasp. However, there are moments of unintentional comedy that provide some entertainment, most of which are provided by April Hand’s performance, which consists of her making expressions like the one pictured above. The other moment of unintentional hilarity is the film’s climax, when The Synthetic Man’s purpose is graphically demonstrated in what I assume to be an homage to a sequence in Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed, just lower-rent in budget and execution.

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Writer/director Hand’s previous two films have been strange in their own right, but The Synthetic Man is easily his most bizarre film yet.”–Jason Coffman, Film Monthly

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.)

CAPSULE: MAY (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Lucky McKee

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A girl with a lazy eye grows up as a social outcast with a doll as her only friend; she gets corrective lenses as a young adult and is suddenly set loose on the dating world with no social skills and a dangerously loose grip on reality.

Still from May (2002)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: May, the character, is weird as hell; May, the movie, not as much, especially after it abandons the awkward character study of its first two thirds for a familiar slasher denouement.

COMMENTS: It’s easy to see why so many people relate to May. The film’s horror isn’t based on remote external threat of ravening psychos harvesting body parts, but on the uncomfortable internal reality of human loneliness. Angela Bettis, who strokes a stranger’s hand as he naps and grins inappropriately when she tells a story about a disemboweled dog, makes for an unforgettably awkward and desperate May. She can’t even stand up straight; she’s always quivering and tottering on her feet, a woman who can’t find a stable footing in the social world. Her “lazy eye” affliction, which is suddenly cured by modern advances in contact lenses, is a brilliant device to explain how this otherwise attractive girl could have grown up so gawky and socially damaged.

For this script’s purposes, May can’t just be a common fat ugly cow who never gets a second look. She can’t just be constantly rejected by everyone she meets, sitting alone in her room night after night talking to her doll Sally; she needs to be desirable and attractive enough to have potential paramours to play off of. She gets a terrific pair in an amateur horror director played by Jeremy Sisto, whose fascination with the macabre leads him into a dangerous flirtation with this creepy character, and in Anna Farris’ predatory lesbian party girl, who thinks she’s as kinky as May but has no concept of what it’s like to be genuinely twisted. The early reels show geeky May impressing a date with a home cooked meal of mac and cheese and Gatorade and trying to decide what to do when the guy doesn’t call her back after she misreads his social cues and wrongly assumes he’s into cannibalism. This part of the movie is excellent and uncomfortable; we genuinely root for the pathetic girl to find true friendship, while at the same time being relieved we’re not the ones who have to supply it.

Bettis plays May like a female Travis Bickle, but when she finally cracks, it’s the movie that loses it. All of May’s endearing, ungainly mannerisms suddenly fall aside as she becomes a confident killer enacting a weirdo’s revenge fantasy against the cool kids. The more competent and dangerous she becomes, the less creepy she is. What had been an engagingly freaky character study suddenly bows to psycho movie kill conventions, and we spend the last third of the movie just watching the secondary cast get slashed. Although the final scene restores May’s vulnerability and is gruesomely memorable, it doesn’t redeem the movie’s sin of abandoning its freak spirit for horror movie conventionality.

May is more of a “weirdo” movie than a “weird” movie; there are only a few scenes—blind kids crawling on glass, May crying blood, and a schizophrenic crack-up montage—that break with narrative realism in any meaningful way. It’s an above average horror outing sporting superior performances, but it’s not a revolutionary genre movie, and given the film’s socially ghoulish first two thirds, there is a sense of a missed opportunity to do something truly special. “I like weird, a lot,” says one of May’s would-be seducers. The joke is that he’s merely a tourist observing human oddity for a lark, and he’s not prepared to handle sincere, dangerous weirdness on May’s level. To some extent, the same thing can be said for the film; it’s fascinated by its weird character, but it’s not interested in descending into the ultimate depths of depraved weirdness.

The May DVD includes two separate commentaries, each hosted by director Lucky McKee but featuring different cast and crew members. The second commentary includes reminiscences by May‘s craft services provider (i.e. the film’s caterer), which turns out to be a funny concept (he reveals the secret to Jeremy Sisto’s heart—jalapeno poppers—and explains how you supply jujubees to a set on a non-existent budget).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A bizarre (and sometimes repulsive) exercise that’s a little too willing to swoon in its own weird embrace.”–Robert Denerstein, Denver Rocky Mountain News (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: SESSION 9 (2001)

DIRECTED BY:  Brad Anderson

FEATURING: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, , Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III

PLOT: A hazmat crew removing asbestos from an abandoned asylum uncover secrets about the long-dead but deeply disturbed residents—and, arguably, more chilling secrets about each other.

Still from Session 9 (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The weirdometer registers only trace amounts of bizarrity in this eerie, complex psychological horror.  It’s worth a viewing for fright fans, but not thanks to its strangeness.

COMMENTS: Before Session 9, director Brad Anderson was best known (if he was known at all) for his romantic comedies.  Anderson co-fashioned Session 9‘s complicated, haunted script to take advantage of the availability of an abandoned mental institution, a dream location to shoot a horror movie, and wound up finding a more successful niche as a specialist in psychological suspense.  Disdaining shock violence and other teen horror tropes, Session 9 hoes a tougher row by creating its suspense through characterization, hidden secrets, and (for the most part) by encouraging the audience to imagine unspeakable carnage rather than to get off on seeing it laid out in splattery crimson glory.  The idea here is to throw five average Joes into a pressure cooker situation (finishing a three-week asbestos removal job in one week) inside a suggestively creepy locale, and let the tension build organically as they begin to crack under the stress.  Gordon is the most preoccupied of the bunch: he may lose his struggling business if he doesn’t complete this contract on time, and he’s got a newborn baby back home to feed.  Phil, his right hand man, has his own tense dynamic with the obnoxious Hank: they share an uncomfortable history with a common woman.  Mullet-headed young Jeff is the neophyte kid who gets picked on by the others, and Mike is the thoughtful guy who’s too good for this job (for unknown reasons, he’s dropped out of law school to schlep around in a hazmat suit).  The characterizations aren’t deep, but they’re efficient; we know these guys, we get their conflicting agendas.  Mike’s discovery of old tape recordings of hypnotherapy with a schizophrenic woman—reels labeled sessions 1 to 9—provides a parallel dramatic line, as we periodically hear a tranquil doctor probe the mind of a psychopathic woman with buried issues that may continue to haunt the hosptal’s halls to this day.  Like the Overlook Hotel in Session 9‘s closest ancestor, The Shining, the empty spaces of the asylum are virtually a separate character (there are plenty of tracking shots down abandoned corridors to remind us of ‘s horror).  The grounds are full of memories of the departed: Satanist graffiti scrawled on the walls by the teens who broke in to party there on weekends, old mementos and clippings pasted onto the walls of the patients rooms, and broken bric-a-brac left there by the long-gone staff and by homeless squatters.  Everything is linked by dark, dank underground tunnels connecting the various buildings.  It would be almost impossible to shoot a film in this setting that didn’t raise at least a couple of hairs on the back of your neck, and Anderson’s restrained direction and the ensembles’ paranoiac acting ably amplify the institution’s inherent creepiness.  The ending is too obvious to qualify as a twist, and I wish Anderson had shown Kubrick’s courage to go shamelessly over-the-top every now and then, but Session 9 satisfies as a mature, eerie, and mostly quiet horror—a type of film that’s all too rare nowadays.  What could be scarier than an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of ghosts?  The answer: an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of schizophrenic ghosts.

The asylum in the movie, Danvers State Hospital, was a real abandoned mental institution in Massachusetts. It holds the dubious honor of being known as the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy (a fact referenced in the movie), and later became infamous for overcrowding and inhumane treatment of its inmates.  Most of the buildings on the sprawling campus were torn down in 2006 to construct an apartment complex.  The units burned down in 2007 in a mysterious fire, though they were soon rebuilt.  A 12-minute featurette on the DVD documents the cruel history of the institution.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Save for the disappointing finale, Session 9 proves to be a remarkably spare journey into the confines of the mind and a unique evocation of just how terrifying it is to loose one’s mind.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: BUNNY AND THE BULL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Paul King

FEATURING: Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby, Verónica Echegui

PLOT: An agoraphobic young man remembers (or hallucinates) a trip he took across Europe with his hard-drinking, sexually voracious, gambling-addicted pal Bunny.

Still from Bunny and the Bull (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s a mildly surreal comedy that’s in the weird ballpark, but it’s not nearly unhinged enough to make the List on weirdness alone, and too uneven to be counted among the best weird movies ever made.

COMMENTS: Bunny and the Bull begins by introducing us to Stephen Turnbull, an shut-in with severe OCD issues who files his used dental floss and checks the pH of his urine every morning, then shows in flashback how he degenerated from a functioning neurotic to a full-fledged basket case.  An emergency involving rats violating his boxes of hermetically sealed vegetarian lasagna forces him to phone Captain Crab for a takeout meal, unlocking a flood of memories.  The logo on the takeout box inspires Stephen to remember the time he was stood up by a girl he intended to propose to at a Captain Crab.  In the movie’s first anstract sequence, he imagines a restaurant constructed entirely out of painted paper; even the fish swimming in the aquarium are cardboard cutouts.  The motif carries over in the next scene, where an entire horse race is re-enacted with similar animated, spray-painted two-dimensional figures.  These two scenes set up the expectation that the entire movie will carry through this hazy-dream-version-of-a-high-school-play look, but as Stephen and Bunny begin their tour of Europe, subsequent sequences are shot on realistic looking sets, though sometimes employing blurry rear-projection or other random visual trickery.  Then, halfway through the movie the cinematographer pulls out a new look: a world full of gleaming brass CGI clockwork contraptions.  The different visual signatures each look great on their own, but the schizophrenic hopping about from one to another makes you wonder if they switched art directors halfway through film, then ran out of money in the special effects budget.  Bunny‘s visuals are frequently likened to those of The Science of Sleep, but that comparison only holds for the cardboard-cutout scenes; the lack of a Continue reading CAPSULE: BUNNY AND THE BULL (2009)

CAPSULE: PEACOCK (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lander

FEATURING: Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman

PLOT: After a train accident destroys his privacy, a mentally ill bank employee leads

a double life, playing himself and his own wife, as he navigates his relationship with a poor single mother and his own worsening psychological state.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Peacock‘s gender-bending premise suggests all kinds of weird possibilities, the film’s execution doesn’t capitalize on any of them, and the final product is a muddled, small-town drama with only the occasional hint of slight weirdness.

COMMENTS: Set in the fictional Nebraska town that gives it its name, Peacock begins with an average day in the life of its disturbed protagonist, John Skillpa (Murphy), as he eats the breakfast prepared for him by his wife Emma. The twist, however, is that John is Emma, and that he’s built an illusion of idyllic family life within the house he inherited from his abusive mother. The first few wordless minutes set this up promisingly, as Murphy capably portrays both halves of this quiet household going about their daily business.

Then a train caboose flies off its tracks, knocking Emma unconscious while she’s hanging laundry; instantly, the Skillpas become the talk of the town, and a rallying point for local politicians. This could be the start of a tense psychodrama… but instead, it soon fizzles out and degenerates into half-baked histrionics. Although Murphy is commendable in his dual roles, switching back and forth between the ultra-jittery John and demure Emma with a convincing change of personality, his performance can’t overcome the often shaky writing. This worsens considerably toward the end, as a series of out-of-left-field twists and turns torpedo the film’s already questionable logic.

The other actors also fare poorly. Most unfortunate of all is Ellen Page, brutally miscast as a hash-slinger and sometime prostitute who also happens to be raising John’s child. Although Page has found phenomenal success playing precocious teenagers in movies like Hard Candy and Juno, she sounds hopelessly out of place as the put-upon, provincial Maggie. Susan Sarandon, as the mayor of Peacock’s feminist wife, brings some well-needed warmth and humor to the film, but she too is wasted as the film quickly stops using her interactions with Emma to explore gender roles, and becomes a dour, poorly paced thriller instead—one without any real suspense or fear of discovery.

Outside of Murphy’s oddball, over-the-top performance, Peacock is disappointingly conventional and just as mixed-up as its protagonist. Sometimes it acts like a satire of wholesome small-town values, as its supporting cast members all speak in the same exaggeratedly folksy dialect and share the same dull conversation topics. But by the end, it’s clear that Peacock is just an anemic rehash of Psycho‘s less plausible parts, with plot holes deep enough to bury a body. First-time director Lander, who also co-wrote, drops every potentially interesting angle by the wayside, and in so doing squanders a plum cast. If you want to see Cillian Murphy in drag, you should probably just watch Neil Jordan‘s Breakfast on Pluto instead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lander’s thriller wannabe is a confusing jumble of badly developed ideas which happen to be acted out by a talented group of actors who are squandered away in a film that is so concerned with creating a mystery that it overlooks the fact that it also needs to be a good movie. A sad waste of a great cast.”–Marina Antunes, Quiet Earth

SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

DIRECTED BY:  George Hickenlooper

FEATURING Billy Bob Thornton, J.T. Walsh, Molly Ringwald, Jefferson Mays, Suzanne Cryer

PLOT: A peek inside an asylum for the criminally insane as a mentally retarded double

murderer chats with a diabolical fellow inmate before being interviewed by a newspaper reporter on the day of his release.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is a short film with unusual subject matter.  The viewer is treated to a vignette portrait of a murderer in an insane asylum.  There is a glimpse of his twisted companion, and a look at the sorts of confused, eccentric bureaucrats who run the place.  All of this is presented against the backdrop of the controversy of social attitudes about the patients.  The piece is strangely cemented together with the premise of a newspaper reporter trying to get an interview with the murderer on the day his sentence expires.  Odd as the setting and premise are, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is really just a demo-clip.  The idea was to get the concept of Billy Bob Thornton’s ability to portray Karl Childers out into the greater film community in order to locate backers and pitch a full-length movie.  It worked, and the mainstream picture Sling Blade was the result.  Most of  Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade is filler, the premise with the reporter being used to make the film longer than a screen test.  As such, the film lacks the substance and quality to be a truly weird movie.

COMMENTS:  In this short film predecessor to Sling Blade we observe a day in the life of a criminal mental patient who is on the verge of social repatriation.  Karl Childers (Thornton) chats with a fellow inmate in an institutional day-room.  Meanwhile, reporter Teresa Tatum (Ringwold) is waiting to interview Childers.

Tatum, who is working on a feature exploring the controversies of releasing criminal patients back into society, pontificates frivolously at long length with a companion (Cryer), then spars with a hesitant and quirky chief hospital administrator (Mays).  Eventually, we are allowed to see Thornton’s skillful performance as Childers when he explains to the reporter the circumstances of his crime.  The interim would be dreadfully uninteresting time filler were it not interspersed with several astounding segments in which J.T. Walsh plays the part of a funny, congenial, but very scary psychotic killer.

The annoying Molly Ringwold, an actress of very modest proportions, puts us to sleep with a Continue reading SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

CAPSULE: HEADS OF CONTROL: THE GORUL BAHEU BRAIN EXPEDITION (2006)

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Pat Tremblay

FEATURING: Neil Napier, and amateurs who answered a newspaper ad

PLOT: Pharmaceutical molecules visualized as alien beings travel inside the mind of a

Still from Heads of Control (2006)

man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder and collect various “personalities,” who are examined as they perform monologues in front of surreal computer generated backgrounds.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not released.  But even if it were released, it’s too uneven to qualify for a list of the 366 Best Weird Movies, although it would definitely have a shot at a list of the weirdest movies ever made regardless of quality.

COMMENTS: Before beginning the description of Heads of Control, I must explain why it earns a “beware” rating.  Normally, I reserve the “beware” badge for movies that are badly done, or even, in some cases, movies that are morally bad.  Heads of Control, however, meets neither of those criteria; although it’s cheap and uneven, it is quite competently mounted and the experimental impulse behind it is admirable.  Here, the rating is given due to the simple fact that this movie is so far out, so much like a performance art piece, that will only appeal to a very small slice of the most dedicated avant-gardists, or to those looking for the ultimate micro-budget drug trip film.  This experiment requires work on the viewers part to watch, and anyone looking for something remotely resembling a normal narrative movie is going to be hugely disappointed.

With that intriguing warning out of the way, just what is Heads of Control?  It begins with the protagonist, Max, being attacked by river zombies; it quickly appears that this is a hallucination, as we see Max in a mental institution being shot up with drugs.  Soon, we are inside Max’s diseased brain, watching a pair of hooded creatures.  The subordinate journeys into the patient’s psychedelically appointed neurons to fetch various two-dimensional rectangles from his tangled neural networks, which the superior creature places into a floating computer monitor.  The pair then watch the results, which consist

Continue reading CAPSULE: HEADS OF CONTROL: THE GORUL BAHEU BRAIN EXPEDITION (2006)