Tag Archives: Psychological

30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

“The story functions, of course, on several levels, political, sociological, philosophical and, what’s most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level.”–Stanley Kubrick

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee

PLOT:  Alex is the leader of a small gang of violent, thrill-seeking youths in England sometime in the indefinite near future.  After a home invasion goes bad, his “droogs” betray him and his victim dies, and he is sent to prison.  The government selects him to undergo experimental Pavlovian conditioning that makes him violently ill when he becomes aggressive, then releases him onto the streets as a “reformed” criminal, only to find he is helpless to defend himself when he encounters his vengeful former victims.

Still from A Clockwork Orange (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Clockwork Orange is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess.  Burgess was ultimately unhappy with this treatment of his novel, because in his intended ending for the story, Alex voluntarily reformed.  This final chapter of redemption had been excluded from American prints of the novel—the version Kubrick worked worked from—at the request of the American publisher.  Kubrick’s version ends with evil triumphant.  Although Kubrick had not read the final chapter of the novel before beginning the film, he later stated in interviews that he would not have included the happy ending anyway because he thought it rang false.
  • The title—which is not explained in the movie, only glimpsed briefly as a line of text on a typewritten page—comes from an expression Burgess overheard in a bar, “as queer as a clockwork orange.”
  • Burgess created the elaborate fictional jargon Alex uses by mixing elements of Russian and Slavic languages with Cockney slang.  Much of his original dialogue found its way into the movie.
  • A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s next project after his previous weird masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  It was also young star Malcolm McDowell’s first feature role after starring in a 1968 weird film, Lindsay Anderson’s If…
  • A Clockwork Orange was the first movie to use Dolby sound.
  • The movie was released in the United States with an “X” rating, and was later cut slightly and re-released in 1973 with an “R” rating.
  • The film was blamed for several copycat crimes in Britain and Europe, notably, a gang rape in which the rapists sang “Singin’ in the Rain” during the assualt.  Kubrick, an American who lived in the United Kingdom, was also reportedly stalked by some deranged fans of the film.  For these reasons, Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from distribution in Britain, both from live screenings and on video.  The self-imposed ban lasted until Kubrick’s death.

INDELIBLE IMAGEA Clockwork Orange filled with as many iconic images as any film of the last fifty years.  Scenes like the one where Alex and his costumed droogs walk cockily through a deserted city in slow motion have consciously or unconsciously been copied many times (compare the similar slo-mo shot of the uniformed gangsters emerging from their breakfast meeting in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs).  Probably the most instantly recognizable image is the opening closeup of Alex’s sneering face, wearing a huge false eyelash one one eye only.  I selected another memorable Malcolm McDowell closeup, the one of Alex as he’s undergoing the Ludovico technique, with wires and transistors attached to his head and metal clamps forcibly holding his eyes open so he cannot look away from the violent images on the screen, because it works as a perfect ironic metaphor for a film we cannot tear our eyes away from.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Although the plot is simple, and realistic in its own speculative

Original trailer for A Clockwork Orange

way, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is so hyper-stylized with its bizarre poetic language, sets, costumes, music, broadly exaggerated performances, and the improbable karmic symmetry of the plot that it seems to take place in a dream world or a subconscious realm.  The action, which takes the form of an ambiguous moral fable, occurs in an urban landscape that’s familiar, but fabulously twisted just beyond our expectations.

COMMENTSA Clockwork Orange did not have to be weird.  The story could have been Continue reading 30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

CAPSULE: ELEVATOR MOVIE (2004)

NOTE: Elevator Movie has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Elevator Movie‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY:  Zeb Haradon

FEATURING:  Zeb Haradon, Robin Ballard

PLOT:  A socially maladjusted college student and a reformed slut turned Jesus freak are elevator_movie

trapped in an elevator together–impossibly, for weeks on end.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Quite possibly, Elevator Movie will make the overall list of 366 movies; I reserve the right to revisit it in the future.  By mixing Sartre’s “No Exit” with an ultra-minimalist riff on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, garnished with large dollops of sexual perversity, writer/director/star Zeb Haradon has created one of the weirder underground movies of recent years.  Unfortunately, in a demanding two character piece that requires top-notch, nuanced dramatic performances to succeed, Haradon’s acting talent isn’t up to the level of his imagination and screenwriting ability.  The resulting film looks like an “A-” film school final project: it tantalizingly promises more than it’s capable of delivering. 

COMMENTS:  Zeb Haradon is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.  The script of Elevator Movie, though not perfect (it misses a few precious opportunities to ratchet the tension and drama up to stratospheric levels), is far and away the movie’s greatest asset.  Haradon takes a very threadbare set of motifs (most notably, infantile Freudian sexuality) and pushes them as far as he can.  This two-character, one setting drama could have been intolerably boring for the first few reels as it builds to its crashingly surreal climax, but Haradon manages to keep us interested by slowly revealing new facets of the characters and keeping up a reasonable tension as Jim and Lana struggle to reconcile their need for intimacy with their complete incompatibility and diametrically opposed agendas.  This could have been a masterpiece, had the actors been able to carry off the monumental task the script sets up for them.  Robin Ballard is passable in the easier role of Lana, but Haradon is almost unforgivably subdued as Jim.  Jim is passive, so some of the wimpiness of the characterization is intentional, but when he needs to project a menacing, seething passion subdued under a calm exterior, he can’t pull it off.  Therefore, at times the inherent dramatic conflict tails off into a bland “OK, OK”, just as Jim’s voice does when Lana once again rejects his advances. 

The images in Elevator Movie, largely scatological and sexual but also involving some brief animal cruelty, are not for the meek.  That said, some of these shocking images, and the surprising but perfect ending, can resonate a horrid fascination for a long time afterwards.  That’s what makes Elevator Movie come so achingly near to being a great weird movie.  Even with qualifications, it’s definitely worth a look for the Eraserhead set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a champion of ‘Eraserhead’, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, ‘Naked Lunch’, and ‘Back Against the Wall’, all fine films that downright bask in their toxicity to the homogenized masses, I found Haradon’s film to be unique and fascinating and a most worthy addition to the midnight movie circuit. Just don’t ask me to spend any longer in Haradon’s mind than I have to in any one sitting. It’s very likely I’d never make it out!”–Daniel Wible, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

“We hoped for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of Cocteau.”–variously attributed to screenwriter John Clifford or director Herk Harvey

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Herk Harvey

FEATURING: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger

PLOT:  Mary Henry, a church organist, is the lone survivor of an accident when the car she’s riding in plunges over the side of an old wooden bridge.  Looking to start over, she takes a job as an organist at a new church in a town where she knows no one.  She finds herself haunted by the sight of a pale grinning man who appears to her when she is alone, and fascinated by an old abandoned carnival pavilion visible from the window of her boarding house that she senses hold a mysterious significance.

carnival_of_souls
BACKGROUND:

  • Carnival of Souls was made in three weeks for less than $100,000 (figures on the budget vary, but some place it as low as $33,000).  The film was a flop on its initial release, but gained a cult following through late night television showings.  The film was restored and re-released in 1989 to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
  • Director Herk Harvey, screenwriter John Clifford and composer Gene Moore worked together at Centron Corporation, an industrial film company, creating short safety documentaries such as Shake Hands with Danger and high-school propaganda/hygiene films such as What About Juvenile Delinquency? None were ever involved with a feature film again.
  • Mesmerizing star Candace Hilligoss acted in only one other feature film, 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse, before retiring to raise a family.
  • The movie has been very influential on other films, particularly low-budget horror films.  Director George Romero has said that the ghostly figures in Carnival of Souls inspired the look and feel of the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Other writers see a Carnival of Souls influence on films such as Eraserhead (in regards to its ability to evoke the nightmarish quality of everyday objects), Repulsion (disintegration of the mind of a sexually repressed woman), and even Apocalypse Now (the shot of Martin Sheen rising from the water mimics a similar scene involving The Man–thanks to Matthew Dessem of “The Criterion Collection” for the catch).
  • Carnival of Souls was “remade” in 1998, although the plot (about a clown killer and rapist) shared nothing with the original except the name and the final twist.  Wes Craven produced.  The remake went direct to DVD and was savaged by critics and audiences alike.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  What else, but the titular carnival?  Ghostly figures waltz to an eerie, deranged organ score on what appears to be an old merry-go-round at the abandoned amusement park.  The tableau recurs twice in the film: once clearly in a dream, and once near the end as a scene that may also be a dream, but may be another state of being entirely.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDCarnival of Souls is set in the ordinary, everyday world, but as seen through the eyes of an alienated, frightened woman.  The world the film depicts is familiar, but made maddeningly strange, and its the subtle, grubby touches rather than ghostly apparitions that allow this creepy low-budget wonder to seep deep under your skin.


8 minute clip from Carnival of Souls (with annotations supplied by a youtube user)

COMMENTS: Carnival of Souls is a minor film miracle.  There was little reason to suspect Continue reading 16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)

“…it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly…”–Hermann Hesse in the 1961 prologue to Steppenwolf

DIRECTED BY:  Fred Haines

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Dominique Sanda, Alfred Baillou

PLOT:  Harry Haller is a world-weary writer and intellectual in the Weimar Republic who is considering committing suicide soon.  One night he meets Hermine, a beautiful young woman, who shows unusual interest in him and makes him pledge obedience to her as she initiates him into the pleasures of the flesh, including jazz, drugs, and sex.  Eventually Hermine leads Harry to the Magic Theater, where a delirious dream about some aspect of his personality lurks behind every door—including, perhaps, his homicidal side.

Still from Steppenwolf (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was adapted from Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse’s classic 1927 novel Steppenwolf, which had been rediscovered and adopted by the 1960s counterculture because of it’s perceived revolutionary vision and it’s apparent endorsement of free love and psychedelic drugs.
  • Michelangelo Antonioni (Blowup) was offered the chance to direct but turned it down because he thought the book was unfilmable.
  • This was the only film directed by Fred Haines.  He had previously been co-nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ulysses (1967).
  • Co-producer and LSD-enthusiast Melvin Abner Fishman declared the Steppenwolf would be “the first Jungian film.”
  • The Czech artist Jaroslav Bradac created the wonderful animated sequence, “The Tractate on the Steppenwolf”; the artist Mati Klarwein (who was also responsible for classic album covers for Miles Davis and Santana) created the fascinating paintings that line the corridors of the Magic Theater.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  For a movie that is so deliberately visionary, there’s not one single image that sticks out far above the others.  The most obvious choices are the images which show Harry simultaneously as a wolf and a man, a concept that is often chosen in numerous variations for covers of paperback editions of the novel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The heavy symbolism and feverish imagery of Hesse’s

Original trailer for Steppenwolf (1974)

masterpiece, written while Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious mind were still novel and revolutionary, present some weird scenarios (such as Harry entering into dream debates with the ghosts of Goethe and Mozart).  When this material is adapted through a 1974 lens, an era when cinematographers hadn’t yet come down from the LSD-inspired visual experimentalism of the late 1960s, it becomes even weirder.  From the Magic Theater sequence on, Steppenwolf is truly trippy stuff.

COMMENTS: There’s a difficulty in reviewing movie adaptations of novels, in that the Continue reading 15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)

8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

Gretchen: “You’re weird.”

Donnie: “Sorry.”

Gretchen: “No, it was a compliment.”

Must See (Theatrical Cut)

-or-
Recommended (Director’s Cut)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURING: Jake Gyllenhaal, , Mary McDonnel, , Drew Barrymore, Kathryn Ross

PLOT:  Troubled teen Donnie sees visions of a six foot tall demonic bunny rabbit named Frank, who demands that he commit acts of vandalism in a sleepy suburban town in 1988.  Donnie narrowly escapes a freak accident when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom after Frank has awoken him and called him away.  Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, on Halloween night, and Donnie attempts to figure out what he can do to save the world while simultaneously dealing with a new girlfriend, bullies, a motivational speaker he sees as a cult leader, and ever-escalating hallucinations.

donnie_darko

BACKGROUND:

  • This was the first feature film for writer/director Richard Kelly.
  • With Barrymore, Swayze and Ross attached, there was a tremendous buzz for the film going into the Sundance Festival.  The movie was not a hit at there, however, and was only picked up for limited theatrical distribution by Newmarket Films at the last moment.
  • Although Donnie Darko was initially a flop on its domestic release, a strong showing overseas helped it to nearly break even.  The film then became a cult hit on video, earning back more than double its production cost.
  • The director’s cut, containing about 20 minutes of extra footage and including pages from the fictional book “The Philosophy of Time Travel,”  was released in 2004.  It was controversial due to the added footage, which  caused some fans to complain that Kelly didn’t seem to understand his own movie.
  • Kelly created a website (now hosted at donniedarkofilm.com), which is structured like a puzzle.  Navigating the website can reveal supplemental material and backstory to the film.
  • Donnie Darko is one of the most talked about films on the Internet, with several competing fan sites and FAQ’s that attempt to clarify and explain the convoluted plot.
  • Followed by a poorly received direct-to-video sequel about Donnie’s sister called S. Darko (2009), which angered many fans.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Frank, the six-foot tall man dressed in a twisted, metallic bunny suit, who only Donnie can see.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDonnie Darko at first appears to be a dizzying collision of genres, themes and ideas.  For the first few reels of the film, the audience can have no conception where the film is heading.  The director drops clues through these opening segments that appear at the time to be simply bizarre, but spark numerous “a-ha!” moments later, when incidents that seemed like throwaway moments or coincidences at the first glance turn out to make a sort of sense.  The identity of Frank, the demonic bunny, is the most thrillingly chilling such moment.  Donnie Darko creates a sense of wonder and mystery throughout its running time, and sparks hope and faith in the watcher that all will be made clear before the curtain drops.   It nests this expectancy inside a bed of genuine empathy for tormented Donnie and his colorful cast of supporting characters.  But perhaps the weirdest thing about Donnie Darko is that it asks us to take its plot at face value; it works very hard to try to convince us that what appear on the surface to be the hallucinations of a paranoid schizophrenic teenager are, in fact, real occurrences with a metaphysical explanation.

Original trailer for Donnie Darko

COMMENTS: Even putting the mindbending plot aside for a moment (we’ll come back to Continue reading 8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

CAPSULE: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

AKA You Better Watch Out

DIRECTED BY: Lewis Jackson

FEATURING: Brandon Maggart

PLOT: After young Harry sees his father making love to his mother while dressed as Santa Claus, he grows up obsessed with jolly old St. Nick; one Christmas Eve, he snaps.

christmas_evil
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Christmas Evil has a few nice, weird little touches scattered throughout. Several times the film seems to switch perspective from an objective view to Harry’s skewed subjective view without giving the audience notice. The darkly witty Santa lineup scene, the out-of-left-field Frankenstein homage, and of course the memorable final shot, where Harry completely breaks with reality and takes the viewer with him, are memorable enough. There is also an eerie atmosphere throughout, helped greatly by an unsettling electronic score. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such high points to justify placing Christmas Evil on the overall list of 366.

COMMENTSChristmas Evil is a serious character study—or, at least, an honest attempt at a serious character study—of a middle-aged loser who lives in a dangerous fantasy world of his own making. There are many little subtle details (catch, for example, the vintage Santa poster depicting St. Nick as a forbidding judge with a gavel) that provide a black comedy feel. On the other hand, it’s very slow to get started and the cheapness of the production often shows to its disadvantage–there’s one terrible editing glitch at the company Christmas party that’s so obvious and jarring, it suggests a loss of financing during post-production. Overall, it’s not nearly as bad as detractors would have it, or as as good as its few defenders (like John Waters) would like to believe. If Christmas Evil were a gift in your stocking, it wouldn’t be a lump of coal, or the keys to a new Mitzubishi Lancer; it would be a pair of cheap but comfy socks in a crazy color scheme that’s not to everyone’s taste.

When it debuted, Christmas Evil (then known as You Better Watch Out) was an oddity: the first film to depict the previously jolly ol’ St. Nick as a homicidal killer. Since then, the holiday vidscreens have been decked with Santa-slasher dreck such as Santa Claws (1996), Santa’s Slay (2005), and the Silent Night, Deadly Night series (1984-1991, with a remake on the way), greatly diminishing the novelty of a psycho Santa. Christmas Evil has little in common with it’s bloody progeny, and is probably the best entry in the sleazy sub-genre it inspired.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…the best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and, if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished!” -John Waters, Crackpot

3. REPULSION (1965)

“I hate doing this to a beautiful woman.” -Attributed to cameraman Gil Taylor during the filming of Repulsion

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Deneuve

PLOT:  At first glance, manicurist Carole (Catherine Deneuve) seems merely to be painfully shy.  The early portions of the film follow her in her daily routine, and we grow to realize that her mental problems go much deeper: she daydreams, she seems to be barely on speaking terms with the outside world, she is dependent on her sister (who wants to have a life of her own) to care for her, and she is repulsed by men.  When her sister goes on a two week vacation, Carole’s fragile condition deteriorates, and we travel inside of her head and witness her terrifying paranoid delusions firsthand.

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Roman Polanski’s first English language movie, after achieving critical success with the Polish language thriller Nóż w wodzie [Knife in the Water] (1962).  The relatively recent success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) undoubtedly helped the film’s marketability, as it could be billed as a female variation on the same theme.  But despite dealing with insanity and murder, Polanski’s film turned out nothing like Hitchcock’s classic; whereas Psycho was clearly entertainment first, with horrors meant to thrill like a roller-coaster, Repulsion was relentlessly tense, downbeat and disturbing, strictly arthouse fare.
  • Ethereal Star Catherine Denueve (who had been the lover of, and given her first break in films by, roguish director Roger Vadim) was coming off her first major success in the lighthearted 1964 musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg].  Playing a dangerous, asexual, schizophrenic woman in a role that called for little dialogue immediately after her role as the romantic lead in a musical demonstrated her tremendous range and helped establish her as one of the greatest actresses of the late 1960s and 70s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many enduring images to choose from, including the hare carcass and simple close-ups of Deneuve’s eyeballs, but the iconic image is Carole walking down a narrow corridor, as gray hands reach out from inside the walls to grope at her virginal white nightgown. (The scene is a sinister variation on a similar image from Jean Cocteau’s surrealist classic Le Belle et La Bette [Beauty and the Beast] (1946)).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Although there are several otherwordly, expressionistic dream sequences in the film, Polanski creates a terribly tense and claustrophobic atmosphere even before the nightmares come with odd camera angles and the strategic use of silence broken by invasive ambient noises. As Carole floats around her empty apartment, silent, alone, and ghostlike, ordinary objects and sounds take on an otherworldly quality. The effect is unlike any other.

Original trailer for Repulsion

COMMENTS:  Polanski begins the film with a close-up of a woman’s eyeball, an opening Continue reading 3. REPULSION (1965)