Tag Archives: Mindbender

CAPSULE: BRAIN DEAD (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Simon

FEATURING: , , , Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor

PLOT: At the request of a pushy corporation, a neurologist performs experimental surgery on a paranoid mathematician, but when he starts having hallucinations he questions whether he may be the patient rather than the doctor.

Still from Brain Dead (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s definitely within the weird genre, but held back by its budget and by subtext-free sensibilities that stay firmly nailed to the plot’s surface.

COMMENTS: Brain Dead is like what would result if directed an unproduced script. (In fact, Roger’s wife Julie produced this for their Concorde/New Horizons B-movie outfit, and it came from an unproduced script by “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont). That sounds like a recipe for fun, and to a large extent it is, although there is not as much senseless sex and violence as you might hope for.

Before it spins into hallucinatory tangents for its entire second half, the plot is relatively simple. Bill Pullman is Rex Martin, a brain scientist researching paranoia; old college buddy Bill Paxton is a corporate stooge for Eunice Corporation who needs a favor. Halsey (Bud Cort), a former Eunice employee and mathematical genius, killed his family and is now locked in a mental hospital believing himself to be an accountant for a mattress company, but he actually has crucial corporate secrets locked inside his schizophrenic brain. The deal: perform experimental brain surgery on him, or lose all your research funding. After a homeless man tries to seize a brain in a jar Dr. Martin is inexplicably taking home after work (“he’s got my brain!”), a car accident results in the paranoid schizophrenic’s grey matter being splattered on the asphalt (the one in the jar, not the one in the homeless guy). Soon after, Martin agrees to perform the procedure. It’s a success, but with a side effect: Martin is now seeing the white-coated, bloodstained figure Halsey claims killed his family.

After this setup, things get really wild as Martin loses grips on who he is. Is he really Halsey, under the delusion he’s Martin? Or has his mind been somehow tampered with by Eunice corporation so that he won’t be able to rat on them? Whatever the case, reality becomes plastic as Martin fights to keep his identity against the mounting evidence that he is not who he believes himself to be. He sees his wife murdered and is blamed for the killing; he’s incarcerated at the same hospital as Hawlsey and drugged; fleeing from orderlies, he ducks into a room inspired by Shock Corridor‘s nympho ward; he has an out-of-body experience and falls into Hawlsey’s brain (depicted as an ocean), and so on. There’s a sensible enough literal explanation at the end, for those who care for such things. The rest of us will wonder if David Lynch saw Brain Dead before deciding to cast Pullman in Lost Highway, and thought “I can do this better—and without the safety net.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Yep, it’s Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton in the very same (and rather weird) little sci-fi horror cheapie from producer Roger Corman and director Adam Simon… Notably better written than it is directed, Brain Dead isn’t any sort of hidden cult classic or B-movie masterpiece, but there’s something to be said for a twisted little science-fiction story that gets to the meat of the matter and doles out a generally tasty little meal.”–Scott Weinberg, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “renwad,” who called it “a strange tale about a brain specialist who’s work is being manipulated by the large company he works for, or is it ? Starring Bill Pulman and Bill Paxton, i think this is a must for the certified weird movie list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.


Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: VANILLA SKY (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Cameron Crowe

FEATURING: , , , Jason Lee,

PLOT: A spoiled playboy finds hope in a sudden romance, but an encounter with a jilted ex leaves him scarred and facing surreal situations beyond his comprehension.

Still from Vanilla Sky (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Vanilla Sky is effectively trippy, and by far the most ambitious visual experiment from a director best known for his way with words. But ultimately the film is weird only by Hollywood standards, and is too neat and tidy in wrapping up its mysteries.

COMMENTS: Cameron Crowe described his remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) as a “cover version”. It’s an appropriate metaphor, considering Crowe’s background as a rock journalist. In fact, Vanilla Sky hits all the same beats as its predecessor, but does so with considerably more panache. The A-list cast, liberal use of iconic New York City locations, and Crowe’s typical meticulously-crafted soundtrack (featuring Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and Radiohead, among others) all point to a production that goes way beyond its modest origins. And in some respects, the grander touches actually do enhance the central mystery of what is going on in the mind of Cruise’s immature media heir. Whereas the Spanish iteration is a straightforward thriller, Crowe plays more with the metaphysical. The stakes seem higher, the stage bigger.

Crowe has to be flashier, though, to hold off the reveal of the Shyamalan-esque twist at the heart of Vanilla Sky, one that might be all-too-obvious to an audience born on The Twilight Zone and raised on surprise reveals that make you question all that comes before. A re-watch of the film confirms that Crowe doesn’t cheat, but accomplishes the feat by distraction. Red herrings and visual allusions (many of which are revealed in a detailed wrap-up montage in the final act) all strive to get the audience looking in the wrong direction, and they are aided by some unusually baroque acting performances. Foremost among these are the gleefully unhinged Cameron Diaz, a dryly obtuse Noah Taylor, and , who brings to her cameo the full arsenal of weirdness that comes with being Tilda Swinton. Oddly, the only actor who seems out of place in the film is Penélope Cruz, the only carry-over from the source material. Cruz is beautiful but disengaged, possibly owing to her relative unfamiliarity with English at this point in her career, and she never displays any of the fire associated with later performances.

At the center of all of this, of course, is Tom Cruise. Present in nearly every scene, he uses his familiar livewire intensity to walk along the edge of madness. Interestingly, he also indulges in a strangely masochistic duel with his own image, at times trading his solid reputation as handsome leading man for both disfiguring facial makeup and a full-face mask obscuring his renowned visage entirely. (His interaction with a group of doctors proffering the mask results in probably the funniest line delivery of his career.) It’s a bold performance, but also quintessentially Cruise.

In the long run, the greatest contribution Vanilla Sky makes is as a central pillar in the ongoing meta-conversation that is Tom Cruise’s career. We conceive of the star as a man whose intense stare and tone betray an insanity barely being kept in check. His character here sits comfortably alongside other entries in the Cruise oeuvre, such as the righteous avenger of the Mission: Impossible movies, the clueless dilettante of Eyes Wide Shut, the angry manipulator from Magnolia, the determined martyr of Valkyrie, and the repeatedly-murdered hero of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s hard to say whether Cruise knows this and can’t resist tweaking the audience by exploiting what we already think we know about him, or if he simply can’t help steering toward projects that provide a glimpse of a troubled psyche. Either way, Vanilla Sky does make viewers feel like they’re getting a choice look into the soul of Hollywood’s brashest-yet-most-mysterious celebrity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Perhaps realizing that to begin reshuffling Amenabar’s complicated structure would bring down the whole deck of cards, Crowe scarcely touched it, changing only minor details, retaining important key dialogue and making his most significant contribution by moving the mood away from dark weirdness to one drenched in modern mores and rock ‘n’ roll. Plotwise, if you’ve seen ‘Open Your Eyes,’ you’ve seen ‘Vanilla Sky.'”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PREDESTINATION (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: The Spierig Brothers (Micheal Spierig, Peter Spierig)

FEATURING: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook

PLOT: While posing as a bartender on a mission to stop a mad bomber, a “Temporal Agent” who travels to the past to stop crimes before they happen meets a man who promises to tell him the strangest story he’s ever heard.

Still from Predestination (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Predestination is a fine, twisty-plotted mindbender, but not really any weirder than Looper, Timecrimes, Primer, or other movies that depend entirely on time travel paradoxes for their uncanny effect.

COMMENTS: Predestination is one of those movies that is so dependent on its twists for its effect that it becomes hard to review. Certainly, I would like, if nothing else, to praise Sarah Snook’s star-making performance here; but it’s difficult to discuss what’s so impressive about it without giving away the secret (I will say she shows great range). Nominal protagonist Ethan Hawke is serviceable as the time-weary agent who’s been doing this way too long, but despite being top billed he is essentially the frame for Snook’s bizarrely tragic story. There is not much money here for spectacular visuals—they blow most of the FX budget on a single virtual reality simulator in the movie’s first thirty minutes—but not much is needed to tell the story correctly. Predestination also dances around some big ideas without really addressing them directly. There’s the title conundrum, and a testing of the limits of pragmatism—sure, most everyone agrees it’s ethical to kill one man now to save the lives of one hundred innocents later, but what about killing one guilty party and nine harmless civilians to save one hundred people later? Those ruminations aside, the pleasures here are almost entirely of the unraveling-the-tangled-plot-skeins variety, with Snook’s impressively sympathetic performance as a noteworthy bonus.

When you feel embargoed from discussing the plot at all for fear of mentioning spoilers, a movie becomes hard to discuss; although that very reluctance is also a good sign, since you are implying that there is some pleasure to be spoiled. I will make an observation that it is neat how the Spierig’s script keeps some elements from Robert Heinlein’s original 1958 short story (titled “All You Zombies”) to create an alternate version of the past (specifically, Heinlein imagined a 1960s world where women were barred from becoming astronauts, but allowed to go into space as state-sponsored courtesans!) If Temporal Agents were really running around changing the past, surely they’d be messing up little sociological tidbits like that by accident. More of those sorts of details would have helped kick the film up another notch and added to the feeling of disorientation. Still, Predestination is a solid time travel movie of impeccable lineage, one that is not too difficult to follow despite its complexity. What in another movie might appear to be a plot hole here seems like a rigorous exploration of an alternate understanding of causality. Well done.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like all time-travel stories, this inevitably trips on its own causal illogic – but not before it’s offered you a taste of something genuinely rich and strange, and probably toxic.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ jeandeaux” who argued that it “explores, in its own weird way, the ultimate concerns of human existence: meaning, loneliness, freedom, and mortality.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FRAME (2014)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Carranza, Tiffany Mualem

PLOT: The (literally) separate realities of a thief and a paramedic intersect.

Still from The Frame (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Try though it might, The Frame can’t entirely escape the sophomore slump. Jamin Winans’ first film, Ink, was a budget original and a Certified Weird success. This followup has interesting ideas that prove Winans’ talent is not a fluke, but it doesn’t capture the imagination the way the debut film did.

COMMENTS: The production team behind The Frame has been stingy in revealing details of the film’s plot, and after watching it I can see why. The movie does benefit from surprising twists (the first of which is revealed fairly early), and although I don’t think the intriguing concept completely pays off at the film’s end, it’s still a good idea not to spoil it. So, this is as much as I’m willing to say about the plot: it involves Alex, an illegal immigrant and reluctant thief working with a crew who boosts cargo from sixteen-wheelers, who’s looking for a way out of his criminal lifestyle. It also involves Sam, a dedicated paramedic with a troubled personal life and a weekly date with a blurry therapist. The two characters live separate lives in realities that exist at right angles to each other—not parallel, since parallel storylines never intersect, and these two lives do connect, in a very strange way.

I can’t say that the two stories resolve themselves in an emotionally satisfying way, but things do get weird by the end, especially when Sam crashes a film production studio and finds herself stuck in a loop with a self-typing typewriter. There’s also a low-tech, but bold, special effect with Alex that looks simultaneously silly and cool; it’s the kind of thing a Hollywood film would never dare try for fear of looking foolish.

The rigorous father-daughter allegory of Ink is here replaced by a free-form rumination about free will, about the (im?)possibility of escaping from your “frame” (whether that’s a self-limiting frame of reference, or a literal frame of celluloid). Whereas Winans’ debut was a dream/puzzle film, here he opts for a Twilight Zone-y scenario set mostly in the “real” world that feels, at times, unfinished. Each story contains a mysterious pseudo-omniscient figure lurking around the film’s edges whose significance is never fully explained; in Sam’s case, it’s her therapist, while Alex sees visions of a steampunk tinker in a raggedy tophat out of the corner of his eye. The latter character was memorable enough to make the DVD jacket, and to make the viewer wish he’d appeared in more scenes. The ultimate resolution, unfortunately, is arbitrary; the script too cleverly writes itself into a corner, and has no way out except deus ex machina.

All in all The Frame is a mixed bag, a film with pretty big ideas, some of which work and some that fall flat. One thing that can definitely be said in its favor is that it’s a professional looking film that belies its budget. Denver, Colorado is not known as a hotbed of movie talent, but the technical aspects of this film—editing, camerawork, lighting, acting—equal indies made in New York or Hollywood. The Frame makes an excellent calling-card for young leads David Carranza and Tiffany Mualem; both prove capable of carrying an indie drama. They’re flatteringly photographed and show emotional intensity (if not a lot of range, given the quiet and downbeat mood of the story).

The career arc of Jamin Winans reminds me of ;[1]. both are obsessive fantasists who work slowly, meticulously control their films (including writing their own scores), and eschew commercial compromise. The upside to that methodology is independence; the downside is they refuse studio resources that could help them to realize more elaborate visions. As long as these guys keep coming up with creative ways to reveal the fantastic in the everyday, though, no one here will complain.

You can download The Frame directly from the filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a metaphysical urban fantasy that fills the heart and mind equally…”–Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects (contemporaneous)

A digital copy of this movie was provided by the distributor for review.

  1. One difference between the two is that Jamin has a collaborator, producer, publicist and wife Kiowa Winans, who probably deserves more credit for the finished products than she gets []

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970)

Today also begins what we hope will be a long and fruitful partnership with the Movie and Music Network. M&MN will be providing us with a link for 366 readers to view one free movie from their library each month. They have licensing agreements with Something Weird, Cult Epics, Media Blasters, and the Russian Cinema Council, among others, and they focus on a bizarrely non-mainstream mix of 420-friendly original programming, grindhouse movies, and softcore sleaze that Netflix and friends wouldn’t touch.  The Wizard of Gore is first up: you can watch it for free by clicking here. (Due to insane levels of violence, you must be 18 or older to access this movie, sorry). If you decide to sign up, the service is only $5.99/month (at the time of this writing).

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ray Sager, Judy Cler, Wayne Ratay

PLOT: Montag the Magnificent operates a grand guignol theatrical act where he appears to chop up female volunteers onstage before viewers’ eyes; they return to their seats unharmed, but then die of the same injuries later that night.

the_wizard_of_gore

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It may be the most psychedelic gore movie H.G. Lewis ever made, but despite its pretensions towards making us question the nature of reality, Wizard really only makes us question our decision to watch a crappy H.G. Lewis gorefest.

COMMENTS: “What is a magician?,” grand guignol showman Montag asks his audience (minutes before decapitating himself with a guillotine). “A person who tears asunder your rules of logic and crumbles your world of reality?” Well, no, that wouldn’t be my first stab at a definition of “magician,” but Montag is on a roll. He goes on to ask his audience “how do you know that at this moment you are not asleep in your bed, dreaming you are in this theater?” This got me to thinking: how do I know I’m sitting on my couch watching a ham actor in an off-the-rack tux act like he thinks he’s performing Shakespeare in the Park after partaking of some serious backstage doobage? “All your life—your past, your rules of what can and cannot be—are part of one long dream from which you are about to awaken, and discover the world as it really is!,” warns Montag. Perhaps reality is a bad H.G. Lewis gore movie, and I am merely dreaming that I’m watching a bad movie, when in fact I will soon awake to find I am living in one? Maybe in reality people’s insides look like pig viscera stuffed into a plaster model and smothered in Heinz ketchup. Maybe when a magician—excuse me, one who tears asunder my rules of logic—gleefully roots around inside the torso of a corpse for five minutes, the amount of blood splashed on his shirtsleeves changes from shot to shot. Perhaps reality is full of abrupt edits, and the background music changes drastically with each cut, and maybe in the world as it really is the sound sometimes drops out, and some people’s dialogue is dubbed in in post-production, while others remain eternally mute.

Actually, the incoherent editing and choppy sound mix adds a surreal edge to what otherwise would be a simple bad movie endurance test. Wizard’s plot exists only as an excuse to string together Montag’s dismemberment sequences, which if you’re counting at home involve a chainsaw, spike through head, drill press through torso, and sword swallowing. “Isn’t there one lady among you who is considerate enough to satisfy her fellow human beings’ lust for blood?,” complains Montag.

Besides its visceral concerns, Wizard also has philosophical issues on its mind, although they are admittedly limited to the “dude, what if your whole life up to right now has just been one long dream?” sort of rumination. There’s a ridiculous “twist” ending to prove the movie’s solipsistic point, and Wizard‘s take on metaphysics is every bit as credible as its grasp of anatomy. ”You fool, what makes you think you know what reality is?” Montag proclaims. I admit, I can’t prove I should necessarily trust the evidence of my senses, but I do know this: I’m bored, therefore I am (watching an H.G. Lewis move).

You want to know what’s really terrifying about The Wizard of Gore? It’s not the rivers of gooey red blood; it’s the orange couches and purple sports coats. Sadly, we have become immune to the kind of violent shocks Lewis was trying to create in 1970. The butchery of our fellow humans seems quaint and laughable, while the early 70s fashion sense is what horrifies us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a sleazy, surreal treat.”—Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (essay)

Don’t believe The Wizard of Gore is as bad as we say? Decide for yourself by watching it for free.

CAPSULE: COHERENCE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: James Ward Byrkit

FEATURING: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brenden, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Loreen Scafaria

PLOT: Eight old friends hold a dinner party on the night a comet is passing by the earth; an “astronomical anomaly” plunges them into a whirlpool of uncertainty and paranoia.

Still from Coherence (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an excellent indie, and highly recommended to fans of “Twilight Zone”-styled intellectual chillers. It’s essentially a rationalist movie, however, and despite raising an uncanny hair or two, it’s not quite weird enough for this List.

COMMENTS: Talk about your film critic-specific problems: I’m struggling over whether I can conscientiously nominate Coherence for “best original screenplay” of the year when it was technically made without a script. The main “pro” argument is that, with eight actors, essentially one set and no extra money (or particular need) for special effects, Coherence generates a magnificently paranoid sci-fi effect entirely from its story. Director Byrkit and co-writer Alex Manugian (who also plays Amir) created the scenario as an outline, sketching out the major plot points they needed to hit, then let the actors improvise most of the dialogue and some of the situations. Acting-wise, the result is a believable naturalism: whether you like these slightly smug, upper-middle class characters or not, they do seem like a gang of old friends exchanging banter at a dinner party. Because of the unusual narrative structure, once the premise is established, the actors’ freedom to explore their characters and their interrelationships is no hindrance. Many of the plot developments here are arbitrary: not in a bad or sloppy way, but in a way that actually adds to the experience, increasing our disorientation and implying a puzzle where many different types of pieces might fit equally well. At a certain point in the story, the exact details of what happens to these characters become unimportant; the issue is the choices they make in order to survive the seemingly infinite night.

The script (such as it is) has two forgivable problems. The first is implausibility, not so much in the conceit (we go in to a movie like this expecting it to take liberties with reality) as in the action: sometimes, the characters need to do things that seems unlikely or unwise to kick-start the scenario. The second misgiving is the fact that at one or two points the script uses exposition like a cattle prod to force its characters to jump to (ultimately correct) conclusions more quickly than they would in “real” life. Given the difficulty of scripting believable responses to incredible events, and the fact that no movie would occur if the partiers just hunkered down and played canasta by candlelight while waiting for the comet to pass, we’ll give it a pass on those two points.

Coherence is performed by a cast of accomplished and professional, but unfamiliar, actors. Like a theatrical troupe that’s been working together for months on a stage show, they are at ease with one another and with the material. Everyone is good, and almost every cast member gets a turn to shine, although chief protagonist Emily Baldoni is the only performer here with breakout leading lady potential.

If the description above sounds a little vague, that’s one of the other film-critic specific problems with a movie like Coherence. Surprise is one of the movie’s chief pleasures, so you’ll just have to trust the reviewer when he or she says that it’s worth sticking around this dinner party to see where the conversation will take you. It starts a little slow but once the comet knocks all the lights out in the neighborhood except for one brightly lit house a couple of blocks away, things heat up quickly—by the midpoint of movie I was hooked. Anyone who likes puzzle movies such as ‘s Primer—a film that comes to mind because of its similar budget, minimalist aesthetic, and ingenuity in generating suspense through manipulation of speculative ideas—should find Coherence to be right up their alley. It’s exciting both as a chilling peek into the dark shadows of alternate realities, and as an example of how resourceful filmmakers can produce thrilling effects using nothing more expensive than their own brains.

Also, please see our interview with James Ward Byrkit.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Byrkit’s] premise has Buñuelian potential, but too often he settles for the shocks of a Twilight Zone episode.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RESOLUTION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

FEATURING: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Bill Oberst Jr., Kurt David Anderson, Emily Montague

PLOT: A man ties up his methamphetamine-addicted friend in a cabin in hopes he will kick his drug habit, but strange things start to happen.

Still from Resolution (2012)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In this tense micro-budget thriller, a young man tries to bring his friend back to reality, only to find that “reality” is not just open to interpretation, but malleable and ever-changing. In fact, the pair’s reality might not even be their own. A genre bender and a puzzler all in one film, this indie thriller combines horror, mystery, drama, and psychological suspense elements with a novel premise and twist and turns to deliver a uniquely weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS: In spite of some worn clichés—mysterious found footage, missing researchers, and a mystic medicine cabin obligatorily set on an Indian reservation—with Resolution, independent writer/director Justin Benson brings us a breath of fresh air. The film is technically adept on its small budget, and presents a real genre-bender of a plot. Resolution builds slowly as a crime drama, becomes psychological suspense, then morphs into a puzzler riddled with paradoxes. It releases in a brief climax of occult horror.

In the story, yuppie Michael (Peter Cilella) travels to a remote squatters’ shack, where his addict friend Chris (Vinny Curran), bristling with firearms and contraband, has holed up, resolved to kill himself with drugs. Michael restrains Chris, and forces him to withdraw “cold-turkey” over the course of a week.

A progression of weirdos make the scene. Chris’s low-life cohorts (Kurt David Anderson and Kyler Meacham) drop in, demanding drugs. A tightly-wired Native American property owner (Zahn McClarnon) and his menacing gang show up to evict the occupants. A scheming real estate developer (Josh Higgins) creeps in, mistaking Michael and Chris for the deed-holders, and a doomsday religious cult is engaging in shenanigans a little too nearby for comfort.

Michael strives to maintain control over the situation to buy enough time to get Chris straightened out, and back to civilization and rehab. Despite the threat posed by oddball interlopers, the real tension is yet to come.

Someone…or some THING is watching and recording everything Michael and Chris do. But how? The surveillance indicates a presence that looms closer and closer, yet Michael can’t detect the observer.

Looking for clues, Micheal discovers strange footage shot by a missing anthropology team, then locates a laconic neighbor, Bryon (Bill Oberst Jr.), with an uncomfortably unorthodox existential philosophy. From here the story plunges into perplexing paradoxes. Chris’s sleazy drug buddies and the landowner converge for a showdown. Mind-bending events knock Mike and Chris away from objective reality and any sense of control over their destinies.

Resolution is talky, but intriguing. The long-winded plot is better suited for an hour short. Aside from establishing an initial setting and circumstances, the first half of the film doesn’t bear vital relation to the engaging concepts of the second. It’s still pretty good. Unsettling developments keep us watching. Plot twists reveal a honeycomb of passages down which to venture. Rather than choose one of them and proceed, the filmmakers offer a twisted experience based on the fact that these alternate routes exist.

Part of the fun of Resolution is thinking about the various possibilities and what they mean. In our minds, we pursue them, trying to predict the outcome, but just when we think we know what’s going to happen, Resolution throws us a new twist. Throughout it all ripples a nerve-jarring undercurrent of menace, indeterminate and incipient. Mike and Chris’s safe return to the outside world is increasingly unfeasible.

Subtle cinematic artistry reinforces the exposition. In the scene in which Michael is conversing with Byron, Byron discusses his views about narrative and story. As he explains his views, he holds a mirror. At first, the mirror is angled so that Micheal’s reflection blends with Byron’s face. The effect is to project Byron and Micheal as melded together, depicting a dual entity. But Michael cannot see it. Only we can see it.

Byron angles the mirror so that we see another mirror on the wall behind Michael, producing the illusion of endless repetition. It illustrates the concept of how a painter records a scene. There is the scene, and a painter painting it. But there is a larger scene. For us to see the painter painting the scene, there must be another painter, painting the painter painting the scene… and so on to infinity. This is a pivotal moment in the film. Resolution carries distinct, though not fully developed sub-themes about the evolution and structure of folklore, myth and story, and these are tied into paradoxes.

Resolution was filmed in a half-completed lodge under construction, illuminated by hook lamps, and without background music. Intimate camerawork increases a sense of realism, almost like seeing a documentary. The technique is effective because Resolution turns out to be all about deconstruction and the plastic nature of reality. By the time we realize this, we’ve accepted the actuality of what’s transpired, only to have the drop sheet yanked out from under our feet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strangely tense and humorous meta-narrative about two friends experiencing weird goings-on at a remote cabin.”–Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)


Resolution trailer

CAPSULE: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

DIRECTED BY: John Carpenter

FEATURING: , Julie Carmen, ,

PLOT: An insurance investigator investigates the disappearance of a bestselling horror novelist whose books have the power to drive men mad.

Still from n the Mouth of Madness (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the Mouth of Madness has an ahead-of-its-time, and slightly weird, premise, but the movie’s execution doesn’t live up to the promise of the insane scenario.

COMMENTS: A throng of maddening ideas writhe within In the Mouth of Madness. A horror writer whose books turn susceptible readers into psychopaths. A New England town, not marked on the map, inhabited by characters and places from the writer’s fictional stories. A world where the insane gradually come to outnumber the sane, and mental asylums become a refuge from the madness of the world outside. These elements conspire to make Madness an intriguing proposition, but unfortunately the movie sports an equal number of gaffes that keep it from reaching its potential. Madness‘s initial budget of 15 million was cut by more than two-thirds, which perhaps explains some of the unevenness on display. Some of the special effects, especially the ones devised by Industrial Light and Magic such as the sequence where Prochnow peels his face apart and it turns into the ripped pages of a novel, are up to 1990’s snuff. But some of the non-scary rubber makeup effects belong in a movie from a decade earlier; for example, a scene where a circus contortionist wears a mask meant to convince us she’s another character is more likely to elicit chuckles than shudders. The acting, too, is all over the map in terms of quality. The first speaking part goes to a bow-tied asylum administrator whose campy, overly-precise delivery doesn’t inspire much confidence going in. Sam Neill is fine here as the somewhat bland hero, Prochnow has the proper face for the otherworldly novelist, and it’s nice to see Charlton Heston in a small role as a publisher (he probably enjoyed working with Carpenter for a couple of afternoons in the kind of a low-stress cameo accomplished actors can afford to indulge in the twilight of their careers). Julie Carmen is wooden as the female lead, however, and shares little chemistry with Neill; her character serves little purpose and the movie may have benefited if she’d been cut out. Despite having an original premise, the script leans on horror cliches too often, with jump scares, a “fake wake” dream sequence, and an expository wraparound that doesn’t make a lot of story sense (who does the doctor who’s interviewing Neill’s character work for, why is he interested in this patient, and what exactly is he trying to learn?) Given those drawbacks, which are the kinds of flaws that usually sink mid-budget horror attempts, it’s a testament to the strength of the ideas here and to Carpenter’s direction that the movie does manage to keep our interest–and has even become a cult item in some people’s minds. Although the name of the novelist—Sutter Cane—is a blatant sound-alike for Stephen King, the style of horror here (both in this story and in Cane’s fictional universes) is more reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, with its emphasis on insanity brought about by forbidden knowledge and on unseen, indescribable monsters from other worlds who seek to invade ours. (The movie’s title even suggests Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness”). Those addicted to Lovecraft’s influential style of occult horror—a universe where the Old Gods slumber uneasily, waiting to be awakened by foolish mortals so they can assume their rightful dominion over our world—will appreciate this occasionally clever tribute to the perverse imagination of “the gentleman from Providence.”

In the Mouth of Madness is a pioneering example of meta-horror, by which I mean not just a horror movie that is “self-aware” (as in a parody) but in which the nature and craft of diabolical literature itself plays an essential part in the story. Another example from the very same year of 1994 was Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, in which actors from the Nightmare on Elm Street series find that the fictional creation Freddy Kruger is clawing his way into the real world. The best recent iteration of this interesting mini-genre is last year’s The Cabin in the Woods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…confusing, weird, and not very involving.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kevin, who argued that Madness is “the best of John Carpenter’s 90s films, and the weirdest in his catalogue.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)