FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope
PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.
A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.
“If you accept a strange story told to you as true,
Then a certain enlightenment comes to you.”
—Hugo the Hippo theme “It’s Really True” (as sung by Marie Osmond)
DIRECTED BY: Bill Feigenbaum, József Gémes
FEATURING: Voices of Paul Lynde, Burl Ives, Ronnie Cox, Robert Morley
PLOT: The Sultan of Zanzibar kidnaps a herd of African hippopotami and relocates them to Arabia to defend his harbor from sharks. After the shark menace is ended and the city prospers, the citizens forget about the hippos, until one day the hungry herds’ excursion to eat local farmers’ crops leads the Sultan’s evil Vizier Aban-Khan to organize a slaughter of the beasts. Only the youngest, Hugo, escapes; he flees to Dar es Salaam and makes friends with the local children, but Aban-Khan continues to hunt him out of pure malice.
The story is inspired by an actual hippo nicknamed “Hugo”, who ate farmers’ crops before being adopted by the real Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam.
The film was a Hungarian/U.S. co-production. All of the animation was done on the cheap in Hungary. It was released dubbed into both languages.
Hugo the Hippo is co-writer/director Bill Feigenbaum’s only film credit. József Gémes went on to direct many Hungarian animated features.
Young Marie and Jimmy Osmond perform most of the songs on the soundtrack, along with two songs by Burl Ives and two numbers by jazz/funk session bands.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be something from the wild vegetable hallucination montage: the apple samurai? Jorma and Hugo climbing onto the space butterfly and sailing through the fruity cosmos? We selected the Dalí-esque shot of three massive monolith potatoes triangulating and transfixing our heroes with the magical beams that shoot from their literal eyes as our take-home image.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cigarette-smoking shark; cloud massacre; sliced apple ninja
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hugo the Hippo was released to widespread indifference. Contemporary reviewers were bored and strangely dismissive, failing to catch the undercurrent of weirdness here, but a generation of youngsters scarred by the hippopotamus massacre kept Hugo‘s underground legend alive. The combination of kitschy songs, psychedelic animation, bizarre plotting, tone shifts, hallucinatory episodes, and the inimitable Paul Lynde as an evil hippo-hating vizier blend to create a children’s film gone awry in all the most delightful ways.
PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.
Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.
PLOT: A nubile girl separated from her father wanders the U.S. meeting a poet, gardener, general, doctor, guru, and more, learning that men only want one thing from her.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ah, the late 1960s all-star wacky counter-culture cash-in flop. I have a personal affection for this suspect subgenre, which includes Casino Royale and Myra Breckinridge among other campy disasters. The whole mini-movement was inspired equally by “Laugh-In,” screenwriters with LSD connections, and Hollywood execs’ hopes of wringing the spare cash that hadn’t been blown on grass from out of hippies’ pockets. Sadly, as the number of available remaining slots on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies grows ever smaller, we have to be ever more selective, and Candy has neither the balls-to-the-walls weirdness nor the cinematic competence to challenge for a spot among the very strangest films. Having the even more stunning and misconceived Skidoo on the List to represent this movement takes some of the sting out of reluctantly passing on this wild and wooly folly.
COMMENTS: Buck Henry, fresh off an Oscar for The Graduate, wrote Candy‘s script. Douglas Trumbull (the man responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s “cosmic gate” scenes) did the opening and closing effects. The Byrds, Steppenwolf and Dave Grusin appear on the impressive soundtrack. With that lineup of talent, along with a cast sporting multiple Oscar winners, it’s a shock how awful Candy can be at times. The blame can go to none other than director Christian Marquand (a successful French actor), whose second and final turn at the helm of a major motion picture was this financial shipwreck. Fortunately, at its best (er, worst), Candy is laughably awful, with enough “WTF?” moments (both intentional and unintentional) to keep your eyes glues to the tube.
The plot is a series of nearly-satirical vignettes in which a cross-section of American manhood attempts to grope, seduce, and violate the naïve Candy, who only wants to find her missing father. It is, as the kids today say, kind of rapey; but the menaces the nubile Ewa Auin faces are so silly and absurd that it’s hard to take offense. Candy appears confused rather than frightened by the men’s advances, and whenever someone does score, she enjoys it, in the free love spirit of the times. Her molesters are, in turn, a drunken poet (Burton, as a teen idol version of Dylan Thomas); a Mexican gardener (Ringo Starr, who makes Charlton Heston look like a Guadalajara native by comparison); an air force commander (Walter Matthau); her father’s twin brother; two medical professionals (Coburn and Huston); an underground filmmaker; a hunchback (Azvanour); a self-appointed guru traveling the country in a big rig (Brando); and a mysterious cloaked figure. Among the male cast, opinions are divided on who comes off best and worst, but even if their performances are halfway decent (Coburn), the actor’s star is tarnished just by appearing in this mess.
If you’re looking for weird bits beyond the spectacle of big names embarrassing themselves, we only need to point to the opening and closing, which imply that Candy is some sort of star child sex messiah. Then there’s the scene in a glass-bottomed limousine, shot from below; a drunken Burton making love to a mannequin; a wall-scaling hunchback; and every moment of Brando’s politically incorrect brownface performance as an Indian guru who teaches Candy both levitation and the advanced spine-warping version of the Kama Sutra. Individually, some of the sequences work, but the movie never gets a comic rhythm going, and even the horrible acting rarely elicits a chuckle. It does, however, get weirder as it goes on, coming to resemble a softcore “Alice in Wonderland” more than its original inspiration, Voltaire’s “Candide.” It’s one of those fabulous extravagances that could only have emerged out from behind of a cloud of smoke in the psychedelic era.
The eclectic cast and crew of the film adaptation fits Candy’s curious history. It started life in 1958 as a satirical pornographic novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, which was originally banned but became a succès de scandale when it was republished in the 1960s. “Candy” helped launch Southern’s career: he went on to write or contribute to screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, Easy Rider, and the adaptation of his own novel The Magic Christian. (Reportedly, Southern was not a fan of this 1968 adaptation). Candy was remade twice in 1978 (without authorization, with just enough changes to avoid lawsuits), as dueling hardcore sex films: The Erotic Adventures of Candy and Pretty Peaches. Pretty Peaches, at least, was quite accomplished for an adult film, with bubbleheaded Desiree Cousteau arguably outperforming debuting Ewa Aulin, and has probably been seen far more often than this official studio-backed adaptation. Long neglected, in 2016 Kino Lorber re-released Candy on DVD and Blu-ray, with interviews with Buck Henry and film critic Kim Morgan (Guy Maddin‘s wife) among the extras.
(This movie was nominated for review by “kengo,” who rhapsodized “Cheesy sleazy patchy fun, with a bit of hit and miss satire and no discernible plot, but it does have McPhisto! – Richard Burton at his best. Hollywood was good in the sixties.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
Created by Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange was an authentically odd character in the Marvel universe of the 1960s. Aptly, he debuted in the “Strange Tales” comic. The character almost perfectly encapsulated Ditko’s idiosyncratic, surreal pencil work, even more so than his better known co-creation, Spiderman. Complementing Ditko’s art, Stan Lee scripted the character as a hybrid mixture of Jungian archetypes with a theosophist cocktail of Eastern mysticism and Egyptian mythology. When other artists took over Doctor Strange after Ditko’s departure, it never had quite the same texture, and quickly became bland before descending into parody as the good doctor could be found in superhero team-ups with the likes of Hulk and Spiderman (!)
A pulp mystic, the character hardly seemed like a viable nominee for big screen treatment, and when Doctor Strange (2016) was announced as the next Marvel movie, the prospects didn’t look hopeful, considering director Scott Derrickson’s execrable resume. Surprisingly, Derrickson and his co-writers went straight to Ditko and Lee’s original source material, delivering an entertainingly psychedelic production, which is helped by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, Rachel McAdams, the ever reliable Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.
As much as Robert Downey, Jr. embodies Iron Man, Cumberbatch does the same for this surgeon with the Trump-sized ego. However, an accident leaves Doc’s precious surgical hands mutilated, prompting him to seek enlightenment via the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, filling in for David Carradine), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Before you can say Expecto Patronum, Strange sees the light and transforms into Chandu the Magician heading to the next Hare Krishna meeting. Despite the here-we-go-again St. Paul conversion myth, it plays out much more uniquely, viscerally, and tongue-in-cheek than one might expect. As Strange perfects his new metaphysical trade, the CGI actually enhances the narrative, as opposed to distracting us from it—and, yes, see it in 3D, because that’s the best route for trippy 60s symbolism. Derrickson and company faithfully recreate and expand upon Ditko’s peculiar brand of surrealism and the havoc they wreak with illusionary imagery from the mirror universe is refreshingly off-kilter.
In a rarity for something churned out by Marvel, the director and team have been given room to play outside of conveyor-belt dictates. The fun they have is contagious, but such a subject can only be as good as its villain. Fortunately, they have one in the outlaw mystic Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) who engages in a phantasmagoric battle with Strange on the streets of New York (aided considerably by Michael Giacchino’s galvanizing score). Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius could very well be his astral, Dark Dimension, bony version of Hannibal Lecter (and shame on those who missed that late series, which rendered the Anthony Hopkins/Jonathan Demme version obsolete), delivering his hocus-pocus dialogue with such aridity, he scares the hell out of you just by speaking. Mikkelsen is cast well (although underused) against Cumberbatch’s in-the-know remote wit. Likewise, McAdams is smartly cast as Strange’s ex-girlfriend who literally assists in his physical and metaphysical healing. The actors, coupled with visuals blatantly inspired by MC Escher, give Doctor Strange an all too uncommon individuality. This is not the Avengers taking turns pounding away at big shiny black, metallic thingamajigs. Rather, the good doctor, with his cloak of levitation, takes his battles to the realm of pop nightmares, which makes the late hint to an inevitable Avengers tie-in all the more disappointing. Is it weird? Nah, but it’s an empyrean burlesque and, for this studio, that is a surprising treat.
FEATURING: Christopher Jones, Hal Holbrook, Shelley Winters, Diane Varsi, Ed Begley
PLOT: A rock star parlays his immense popularity and the ascendant power of the youth vote into the Presidency, which he then uses to marginalize the country’s adults, banishing them to concentration camps and dosing them with LSD.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A true document of its time, Wild in the Streets takes its premise of a counterculture gone mad with power to its outrageous extreme. Viewed half-a-century later, the sheer 60s-ness of the thing makes it feel strange and even absurd. But strip away the hippie affectations and what remains is a straightforward sociological horror film, revealing the dangers of demagoguery that lurk in every generation.
COMMENTS: Wild in the Streets is the tale of a temperamental, rich celebrity with parental issues and no political experience who capitalizes on the support of an angry and marginalized electorate, co-opts a group of venal, self-interested politicians who think they can control him, and proceeds to undermine the very core of American democracy for his own corrupt ends. Any similarities to current events are entirely coincidental, of course.
If the plot of Wild in the Streets seems to echo today’s tango with a tangerine-tinted tyrant, rest assured it’s because these provocateurs seem to pop up throughout history in similar ways. In truth, the film sometimes plays like a psychedelic cover version of It Can’t Happen Here. We’ve seen the celebrity-driven, public-aided rise of fascism in other films, from A Face in the Crowdto Bob Roberts, to say nothing of the history books.
Wild in the Streets is so very, very Sixties, though. The vivid costumes, the perpetual drug use, the liberal use of groovy lingo…they all root the film firmly in its time. Providing an additional anchor are the rock songs performed by aspiring dictator Max Frost and his band, the Troopers. It may stretch the imagination to think that these songs represent the sound of a revolutionary generation; to these ears, they sound like The Animals. (Their best song, “The Shape of Things to Come,” was a genuine hit, and re-emerged nearly 40 years later in a Target ad; the revolution will be commercialized.) But Wild in the Streets isn’t quite as concerned with the “how” as it is with the “what comes next.”
Legendary schlockmeister producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff backed the film with one of the biggest budgets they had ever laid out on a single picture, and it shows. Editors Fred R. Feitshans, Jr. and Eve Newman earned an Oscar nomination for capturing the feel of Max’s unsettled mind, the production design is bold and colorful, and the movie boasts an unusually strong cast for what was essentially an exploitation picture. (Blink and you’ll miss a very young Richard Pryor, underused in a non-comedic role as Max’s black-power drummer). This is still an American International Picture, however, with carefully chosen stock footage, heavy-handed narration by Paul Frees, and all topped off by Shelley Winters, so over-the-top as Max’s horrible mother that one longs for the relative calm and dignity of The Poseidon Adventure. Her awfulness is absolute (the moment she gets behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce, she runs over a child), but as the root cause of Max Frost’s lust for power, it’s oddly appropriate. Mixing high production values with low satire, the film has a tendency to feel like an extended riff on the famous “Blue Boy” episode of “Dragnet.”
At times, the strident tone of the movie threatens to dull the impact of its message, but the threat posed by fascism and a failure to take responsibility seriously is never far away. Consider Max’s girlfriend Sally, a zonked-out former child star whom he conspires to get elected to Congress. The realization that this glassy-eyed burnout is the linchpin of Max’s strategy is one of the movie’s biggest laughs, but when Sally takes her place in the House of Representatives and manages to push away the drug haze long enough to set Max’s plan in motion, the funny quickly drains away, and the mood shifts first to deeply uncomfortable, and then to outright horror. The idea that politics is a joke isn’t so funny once you start to treat it like one.
Because ultimately, Wild in the Streets isn’t a joke at all. It’s a nightmare. Go beyond the surface conflict of unruly youth declaring war on intransigent adults, and you find the story of a fascist who rises to power on the backs of an outspoken movement which he never truly intends to appease. It’s telling that, in the movie’s “Twilight Zone”-ish finale, Max discovers the one true downside to absolute power: when you’re king of the hill, someone’s always waiting to knock you off. Again, any similarity to your power at the ballot box in November is entirely coincidental, of course.
“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.
PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.
This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even harder than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
“Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.
“‘Eating your spaceship’ became one of the central themes of what the movie meant.”–Wayne Coyne
DIRECTED BY: Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley, George Salisbury
FEATURING: Steven Drozd, Wayne Coyne, Mark DeGraffenreid
PLOT: It’s Christmas Eve on Earth’s first Mars colony, and Major Syrtis has the job of organizing the festivities. But the colonist tapped to play Santa Claus, Ed-15, has gone mad from space sickness and has committed suicide by running outside into the deadly Martian atmosphere without a space suit. Fortunately, a new arrival at the colony, a silent green man with antennae sticking out of his forehead, mutely agrees to don Santa’s suit….
A psychedelic post-punk band, The Flaming Lips were formed in 1983 and released eleven albums before completing Christmas on Mars. Their music frequently contains science fiction references and their stage shows are known for their elaborate theatricality.
The idea was sparked by a Flaming Lips Christmas card frontman Wayne Coyne designed featuring a Martian in a Santa suit.
The film, written by Coyne, was in development for eight years, as the band worked on it every few months in between other projects. Most of the sets were built in Coyne’s home or backyard. Some of the early production is documented in the Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks (2005).
Co-director Brad Beesley also directed many of the Lips’ music videos and the Fearless Freaks documentary. Co-director George Salisbury was also credited as editor and produced the DVD extras.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: I wouldn’t want to spoil the hallucination’s impact, but it involves a marching band and an imperilled baby. (That’s not the strange part, though).
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Anatomically incorrect space(wo)man; marching band of death; Martian Santa
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although from its lava lamp opening to its twisted happy ending, Christmas on Mars pokes at strangeness time and time again. But what really sets it apart are its many, many vaginas: more vaginas than you would see at a Georgia O’Keefe retrospective organized by the American Gynecological Association. No other movie in existence has so graphically exploited the weird potential of the human (or alien) vagina.
PLOT: In the 1960’s, Jim Morrison (Kilmer), the lead singer of the rock group The Doors, plunges headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He doesn’t make it out alive, dying at the tragically young age of 27 (just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin); the film ends on a shot of Morrison’s gravestone in Paris in the same cemetery as Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Just because a movie features a large number of hallucinatory LSD “trips” doesn’t necessarily make it weird.
COMMENTS: No one does overblown insanity like Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday). On a huge movie theater screen, with huge movie theater sound, The Doors was a stunning, overwhelming experience—particularly the concert sequences, which Stone said were inspired by the orgy scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments. But on television—even a big screen HDTV—all that spectacle is reduced to an entertainingly silly and pretentious camp exercise, redeemed by one unforgettable performance by Val Kilmer that almost alone makes the film worth seeing. Although Kilmer essentially reduces Morrison to a caricature (he never seems to be sober), he looks and sounds so much like the real thing that it’s eerie. How Kilmer didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. He blows everyone else off the screen (with the arguable exception of Crispin Glover, perfectly cast in a cameo as Andy Warhol). Meg Ryan fights her girl-next-door-image as Morrison’s doomed lover Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley have nothing to do but a slow burn as “The Lizard King”’s increasingly frustrated bandmates. Morrison is increasingly haunted by visions of his own death, the ghost of Dionysus (or something), and an elderly Native American man (Floyd Red Crow Westerman); as everyone on screen descends deeper into drugs and despair (Morrison and Courson each try to kill each other), the movie spins so far out of control it almost ventures into Ken Russell territory. The result is that nearly everyone in the film comes off as seriously unlikable. Morrison seems to believe he deserves to be buried with Balzac, Proust and Moliere–which he ultimately was—from frame one. That being said, some of us like silly and pretentious spectacle, so, if you are one of those, try to see this film on the biggest possible screen and the best sound system around. This would at least attempt to do justice to the Doors’ legendary music and Robert Richardson’s staggering cinematography.
Stone’s 141-minute wallow in hysterical excess and bombast is nutty and ultimately exhausting, but far from weird, particularly when it comes to movies about drugs and/or rock music.