Tag Archives: Recommended

CAPSULE: COLD SOULS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Barthes

FEATURING: , Dina Korzun, David Strathairn

PLOT: Paul Giamatti (playing himself) feels burdened by his soul, so he utilizes the services of a company that specializes in soul removal and storage; when he decides to reclaim it from its safe deposit box, he finds there’s a problem…

Still from Cold Souls (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCold Souls is an excellent little movie, but it pitches its tent a few yards outside the boundaries of Weird City.  It posits its impossible philosophic premise as a scientific fact, and develops a strangely believable set of consequences from it.  It’s magical realism that’s heavy on the realism but light on the magic; a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, and one that works well here, but a choice that should prevent it from making the List. A brief peek inside the (rather blurry) corridors of Giamatti’s soul isn’t enough to smuggle it across the weird border.

COMMENTSCold Souls has three things going for it: an intriguing concept, a great sense of humor, and Paul Giamatti. Writer/director Barthes doesn’t have anything new or profound to say about the human soul—her theme is limited to the idea that it has something to do with suffering, and the fact that we’re less human if we lose it—but what new or profound is likely to be said about the nebulous, millennia old concept of soul? Instead, she wisely focuses on creating an elaborate medical mythology of the soulectomy, and builds a fascinating plot by exploring those soul mechanics. We get such concepts as soul residues, the black market soul trade (dominated by those masters of soul, the Russians, natch), and soul mules, people who implant the souls of others inside themselves to smuggle them across international borders. The jokes arise naturally from the set of rules Barthes devises: human essences manifest themselves physically in a variety of shapes, including jellybeans and chickpeas, sometimes to their owners’ dismay.  It’s gratifying to find laugh-out-loud funny lines in this film, since the intellectual concept could easily have limited the humor to being merely sly, witty, and clever.

Deadpan David Strathairn, as a satirically practical plastic surgeon of the psyche, sets up some of the best gags, such as the idea that removed souls can be warehoused in New Jersey to save on state sales tax. But most of the humor and pathos come from the performance of Giamatti, who plays both a soulful and a soulless role; he’s funny when troubled, and troubling once his cares are removed. Giamatti puts his own twist on the smart, neurotic Woody Allen type, but conveys plenty of genuine existential melancholy as well. As an actor playing an actor (his painful emotional over-involvement in playing the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” sets the plot in motion), he truly tests his range. It’s quite a challenge for a polished actor to portray a bad thespian, and Giamatti gets to showcase two failed Vanyas: one that’s subtly off because he’s too depressed, and one that is a complete, farcical burlesque. With the range he shows here, Giamatti merits Oscar notice. On the negative side, one could criticize the flat ending, which is not ambiguous so much as inconclusive, and the fact that the obvious similarities to Being John Malkovich tempt unflattering comparisons. Cold Souls is still a rewarding watch, a smart movie that avoids pretension and delivers solid chuckles.

Eric Young‘s alternate take: it should be borderline weird, at leastCold Souls is a weird movie in the same way that Southland Tales is weird, except that it’s not horrible. It has that paranoid misgiving about the future that begs to be analyzed like a cinematic psychological disorder. There’s something definitely weird about the world that surrounds Paul Giamatti here: it’s foreign, it’s vaguely (and at times obviously) threatening, and it fuels a very strong, underlying neurosis in Paul. Sophie Barthes’ odd cinematic landscape was not the best place for him to go and get something as emotionally and philosophically ponderous as a soul removal, I believe.

Cold Souls is one of the weirder films I’ve seen in 2009, a year soundly devoid of anything resembling true weirdness a la (or , if you’re feeling frisky). It seems the indie circuit has taken the ideas brought forth by the cinematic pioneers of oddities from yesteryear and used them to fit their own kitschy agenda. This new breed write bizarre movies without really bringing much attention to the deformed elephant they’ve written into the room: see Growing Out, as well as flicks like ‘s Fur and, to a lesser extent, Wristcutters. Their efforts have been of dubious quality, for the most part, as most indie directors are a little too insistent on navel gazing to examine the strangeness in their midst, but Cold Souls has something different about it. It’s a well-made movie with a star in his prime that has its priorities lined up, and while existential ponderings by resident schlub Giamatti are priority numero uno, introducing us to the fascinatingly bizarre world of illegal Russian soul trafficking and all the unusual characters involved is pretty high on the list, much to the delight of anyone who’s willing to try something different and new.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s the kind of thing that could easily be played as zany, cockeyed weirdness – but Barthes… wisely keeps the temperature pretty cool throughout. Exploring bizarre concepts, characters and situations with a deadpan matter-of-factness results in a likeably offbeat affair that’s frequently funny and occasionally hilarious, thankfully avoiding the self-consciousness and clever-clever, overcooked feel that marred Charlie Kaufman’s recent, not-so-dissimilar Synecdoche, New York.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: VISIONEERS (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jared Drake

FEATURING: Zach Galifianakis, , Mía Maestro, Missi Pyle, Chris Coppola

PLOT: Repressed corporate employees the world over are literally bursting apart from frustration. Innocuous worker George Winsterhammerman must deal with his huge corporate employer’s misguided and demeaning attempts to remedy the malady. But could the source of the problem be the perpetual brain-numbing proselytizing of the very corporations themselves?

Still from Visioneers (2008)


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Visioneers is an unconventional metaphor about the illogic of artificial business and social constructs.

COMMENTS: Set in the not so distant future, Visioneers is a satirical black comedy about the absurdity of corporate culture, futile optimism, and the ridiculous nature of self-help schemes. George Washington Winsterhammerman works for the fictitious Jeffers Corporation, a giant corporate bureaucracy. His mid-level workaday job is mundane and unfulfilling. The PA system bombards him hourly with optimistic corporate pep talk encouraging productivity.

Everything is business as usual until George and his personal office staff are made aware that around the world, people are spontaneously exploding—literally. The root of the problem stems from lives of quiet desperation and repression. It seems that everywhere, people are being forced to pay lip service to falsely optimistic corporate culture and to suppress human emotion and rational thought.

The constant denial of emotions, the enforced phony business visages, and the frustration of coping with senseless bureaucracies takes its toll. The pent-up stress and officially-enforced anal-retentiveness is causing employees everywhere to literally burst apart into a spray of atomized blood and body parts as surely as if a fuse had been lit to a rectally embedded stick of dynamite. The Jeffers Corporation frantically imposes an endless series of misguided remedies, accompanying them with futile reassurances and encouragement not to explode.

Meanwhile, George has his own worries to deal with. He and his wife are unhappy, he struggles with impotence, his ex-convict, whackjob brother founds a freedom-of-expression movement in George’s backyard, and George worries that he too will explode under all of the confusion and pressure. His employer and physician instruct him to relieve stress via a cascade of absurd quack remedies and bizarre devices, such as a “happiness hat” that comes equipped with a mobile of the solar system. Try as he might, George cannot make any of these remedies reduce his anxiety.  Finally, George has to confront the question of whether or not a lifestyle of mindless productivity, absurd Orwellian bureaucracy, and smiley-faced denial actually provides a positive, substantially meaningful conduit to reality and the human condition.

In the way it addresses the effect of irrational propaganda on the human psyche, Visioneers is reminiscent of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” with human explosions stemming from modern workplace dogma replacing rhino metamorphosis from political indoctrination.

Visioneers furnishes an effective metaphor for the artificial constructs of the modern world. The film is very funny until it misses its chance to top its premise near the end, when it changes into a personal triumph of self-actualization for the protagonist. With great irony, Visioneers becomes the very thing that it condemns and satirizes; a sort of inspirational icon, akin to the posters on your bosses’ walls with the motivational messages printed at the bottom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…gently absurdist… quirky satire wears its influences on its dystopian sleeve, but an amiable cast and some surprising poignancy add up to Orwell that ends well.”–Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LIFEFORCE (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Tobe Hooper

FEATURING: Mathilda May, Steve Railsback, Peter Firth

PLOT: A space shuttle investigating Halley’s comet discovers a spaceship containing three suspended, nude human bodies; returned to Earth, the bodies come alive and begin vampirically sucking the life force out of humans.

Still from Lifeforce (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTLifeforce is a grandly cheesy and frequently nonsensical mishmash of B-movie cliches, and a great movie to watch with a six-pack on hand. Although it’s loony, offbeat and fun, it’s ultimately too lightweight and not quite systematically deranged enough to rank as one of the greatest weird movies of all time.

COMMENTSLifeforce starts out as an Alien ripoff, and ends up as a Quatermass and the Pit ripoff; in between, it’s a Dracula ripoff, only with a naked woman wandering around using her electric French kiss to turn half of London into dessicated scarecrows who reanimate as zombie vampires after two hours pass. Yes, I said naked woman: French model Mathilda May’s totally nude performance is the thing everyone remembers about the film, and quite obviously the main source of the movie’s unending popularity. The woman is stunning; her body is such a perfect Platonic embodiment of the feminine form that, like a Greek statue, it transcends the erotic and becomes an object of pure aesthetic reverence. The flick would still be worthwhile without Mathilda, but her nude performance adds that certain something that lodges the movie in the cinematic consciousness. Add in early Industrial Light and Magic style special effects, with electric blue rays shooting everywhere in sight during the vampire zombie apocalypse as stolen human souls merge together and climb into a great glowing column shooting up to the alien mothership, and you have a film that’s visually unforgettable. When the beautifully overwrought pyrotechnics of the film are matched to the ludicrous story, a certain magical b-movie alchemy occurs. Lifeforce‘s script seems to be being made up as the film progresses, with the stunned actors getting their lines a few seconds before shooting (the movie is stuffed with deadpan lines like “a naked girl is not going to get out of this complex,” “now she has clothes,” and “in a sense, we’re all vampires”). Soon after the aliens have been returned to Earth and start sucking the life force from humans, we learn that astronaut Steve Railsback has a convenient psychic link with Mathilda May because she gave him part of her life force when she electro-kissed him, which allows him under hypnosis to follow her about as she jumps from body to body infecting more Englishmen and -women with the rapidly spreading plague, only now she needs her life force back so she visits Steve in erotic dreams and tries to steal it, but then she goes to Westminster Abbey and starts acting as a conduit for all the pilfered human souls her sub-vampires are stealing and draws Steve to her and… well, the exact mechanics of this plot to take over Earth from beyond the stars are iffy (had the script for Lifeforce been available in 1959,  might have considered making it Plan 10 from outer space). But the movie just keeps forging ahead, giving the audience more of what it wants (that is, a naked Mathilda May), regardless of logic.

Dan O’Bannon scripted Lifeforce: although he also wrote the serious Alien, some of his other campy screenwriting efforts (Dark Star, Return of the Living Dead) suggest that his tongue might have been planted in his cheek when he delivered this wacky script to Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Hooper.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Extraordinarily bizarre mix of science fiction and vampire movie, more likely to provoke derision than any other emotion.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

CAPSULE: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Victor Halperin

FEATURING: Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A Haitian plantation owner seeks the help of local witch doctor and zombie mogul ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to bewitch another man’s bride.

Still from White Zombie (1932)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTWhite Zombie can send quite the uncanny chill down your spine and is well worth a look for those seeking to soak up some classic Gothic atmosphere, but its weird elements are too submerged for it to make the List.

COMMENTS: Although talkies had been around for five years when White Zombie came out, the film is suffused with the sensibility of a silent movie, with the machinations of mustachioed villains causing damsels in flapper bobs to daintily faint.  The players still use the exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures of actors used to conveying emotions by pantomime, and when they do speak, they over-inflect, as if concerned with projecting their words into the last rows of a theater.  This mannered, operatic style, where the characters magnify their fear, grief, malice and wonder in an recognizable but unnatural way, plays right into Bela Lugosi’s larger-than-life persona.  The Hungarian, here again the soul of suave degeneracy, dominates the proceedings in what may be the second best performance of his career.  In an era where we’ve become used to completely naturalistic performances and sets, White Zombie‘s primitive aesthetic seems romantic and, yes, a little weird; when this stately style is wedded to such a stark good versus evil storyline, the results can be magical, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell.  Even the grain in the picture, the hiss in the soundtrack, and the jumps where a few frames of film are missing add to the dreamlike effect. (Watching White Zombie, it’s easy to see how Guy Maddin became intoxicated with this era of film).  The narrative holds few surprises, there are dry patches, and the action climax isn’t exactly a thrill ride.  But White Zombie features many wonderfully disquieting moments that worm their way under your skin and make you squirm in your seat, including the Haitian funeral set to ancient African tribal chants and the damned souls powering the creaking mill wheel at Legendre’s sugar cane factory.

This was the first film to bring the Haitian idea of the zombie—a soulless, re-animated corpse brought to life by a combination of drugs and witchcraft—to the cinema.  Lugosi, just a year off Dracula, was a hot horror commodity but a notoriously bad businessman: he only received $800 for the role of Legendre. 

White Zombie is in the public domain and therefore can be found in many different DVD packages. The best picture comes from the restored Roan Group print (now released by Alpha Video). Although the source material used is not pristine, the best value is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection (also containing Carnival of Souls and several other worthwhile titles, along with some stunning losers like Creature from the Haunted Sea). White Zombie is also in the public domain and can be legally viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Contemporary critics  found White Zombie childish, old-fashioned, and melodramatic.  They might have allowed that it was also a Gothic fairy tale filled with traditional symbols, dreamlike imagery, echoes of Romanticism, and (probably unintentional) psychosexual imagery.”–Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films

36. PI (1998)

AKA π; π: Faith in Chaos

“Very much like the universe itself, the more technologically advanced we become and as out picture of π grows larger, the more its mysteries grow.”—From “Notes on π” on the Lions Gate Pi DVD

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis

PLOT: Max, a reclusive mathematics genius, searches for a pattern that will help him predict the stock market with the assistance of a supercomputer he has built in his apartment.  He also suffers from terrible migraines which cause him to hallucinate, and believes (sometimes correctly) that people are stalking him.  As he gets closer to locating a certain 216 digit number that may have mystical predictive qualities, he finds himself caught between the machinations of a large corporation and a mystical sect, both of whom want the knowledge inside his head and will stop at nothing to get it.

Still from Pi (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pi was made for a mere $60,000, financed largely by $100 contributions from friends and family.  Each of the cast and crew worked for an identical salary and a share of the film.  Pi eventually grossed over $3 million domestically.
  • The movie was shot in high contrast black and white reversal film stock (usually used for still photography).  In his DVD commentary Sean Gullette says that Pi was the first feature length fiction film shot this way.
  • Pi won the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize (losing to the now largely forgotten Slam).  It won the main prize at several smaller film festivals.
  • Aronofsky also created a graphic novel called “The Book of Ants” that presents a slightly different take on the story of Pi.
  • This was the first soundtrack scored by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell, who has now become an in-demand Hollywood composer.
  • Aronofsky went on to further critical success with the bleak addiction parable Requiem for a Dream (2000); the weirdish science fiction/romance The Fountain (2006); the straightforward drama The Wrestler (2008), which earned Oscar nominations for stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei; and five more Oscar nominations (with a statuette for Natalie Portman) for Black Swan.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A brain crawling with ants that shows up in the strangest places, including on a subway staircase and in a sink.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Math wiz Max’s frequent migraine induced hallucinations give Pi


Original trailer for Pi

all the weird cachet it needs, but even without them, the hermetic world created by the mix of grainy high-contrast monochrome photography, rapid-fire montage editing, a pulsing electronic soundtrack, and ideas too grandiose and metaphysical to be completely described would have created a movie seething with weirdness.  It also features a tough, streetwise gang of devout Hasidic Jews, which by itself gives it an extra weird point.

COMMENTS:  “When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun.  So Continue reading 36. PI (1998)

CAPSULE: PONYO [Gake no ue no Ponyo] (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING (AMERICAN DUBBED VERSION): Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Betty White

PLOT:  In this Japanese variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a

Still from Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo) (2008)

goldfish with a human face escapes from the undersea lair built by her wizard father and decides she wants to become human when she washes ashore and is adopted as a pet by a little boy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTPonyo is an imaginative and beautifully drawn fairy tale for children that frequently sacrifices mature logic for emotional effect or visual spectacle, but it’s a bit too safe and cutesy, and more fantastic and childlike than bizarre.  Because it is told from a child’s-eye view and not simplified for adults, some grown-ups may find it weird.

COMMENTSPonyo begins with a descent into an ocean teeming with fish, squid and crustaceans; the picture’s frame becomes an impossibly dense and multi-layered aquarium of submarine life.  When the headstrong goldfish Ponyo wanders away from this underwater Eden, her journey on the back of a jellyfish runs aground when she encounters an equally thick stratum of human detritus and garbage, stirred into a whirlpool by the propellers of passing ships, and ends up washed ashore lodged in a bottle for 5 year-old Sōsuke to find.  There’s a not so subtle ecological message at play here, but Miyazaki never gets preachy, and the main focus of the film is in drawing wondrous moving images that delight a child’s imagination (and look pretty good to adults, too, even if they can’t resonate in quite the same way).  The most mesmerizing of these is newly half-human Ponyo’s gallop atop tsunami waves which turn into fish and melt back into surf as she chases after Sōsuke.  Visions of a luminescent sea goddess and a city of ships drawn to the horizon by an encroaching moon also ensnare the fancy. The animation is deliberately primitive, almost childlike, in style, appropriately looking like a children’s book come to life.  Unfortunately, the story and tone are childlike as well, resulting in a film that entrances kids but lacks a crossover magic for adults.  Grown-ups in the film accept the magic matter-of-factly, as if they were just big kids with driver’s licenses, showing no amazement when a pet turns into a little girl, or when they discover two pre-schoolers piloting their own boat unattended after a flood.  Precociously cute, infatuated with her discovery of the human world, and squealing “I love ham!,” the one-note goldfish herself is a character only a mother or fellow toddler could love.  With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted a film that will hypnotize girls aged four to seven.  There’s not much of a story to engage their parents, but they can amuse themselves watching the parade of pretty pastel-colored pictures for ninety minutes, and in trying to recall what it was like when the line between reality and make-believe was as thin as the skin of a bubble.

I confess that I haven’t seen any Miyazaki films previously (everyone has some gaps in their film education).  The revered animator’s most celebrated works like Spirited Away (2001) are supposed to be so fantastic as to be virtually surreal.  With the visual imagination evident in Ponyo, it’s easy to see how, working with material oriented less towards the kindergarten set, another work of his might merit a spot on the list of the 366 best weird movies ever made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki’s previous films,Ponyo is written from a child’s perspective and with a child’s sense of logic… pure fairy-tale surrealism.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald (contemporaneous)

35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

“I have a lovely memory of my producer, Claudie Ossard, who came to see us in these sewers.  She’d come in Chanel suits and high heels.  It was surreal to see her among these Troglodists dripping in oil.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Karin Viard, Howard Vernon

PLOT:  In the near future, parts of French society have collapsed, most Parisian buildings

are burned out husks, and citizens have turned to a barter economy.  Among the many shortages experienced by city folk is a lack of fresh meat, but one butcher always seems to have enough flesh to trade for corn, or sex.  Answering an ad for a handyman, an ex-clown arrives at the bizarre boarding house run by the butcher and begins a chaste romance with his daughter—but is he there to do odd jobs, or does the butcher have something else in mind?

Still from Delicatessen (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • The first of two films co-directed by Jeunet and Caro.  The pair conceived the idea for The City of Lost Children (also on the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time) first, but it was too expensive to produce.  Delicatessen could be shot on a single sound stage, cheaply, so they produced this film first.
  • In the opening titles, Caro is credited with “direction artistique,” while Jeunet is responsible for “mise en scène.”
  • Jeunet, one of three co-writers on the film, says that the idea for the story came to him because he used to rent a room above a butcher’s shop and would be awoken by the sound of the butcher sharpening his cleaver every morning.  His fiancee would joke that the landlord was killing his tenants for meat in order to convince him to move to a new apartment.
  • Caro not only refused to participate a director’s commentary, saying that he didn’t believe in them, but also requested that footage of him not be used in the behind-the-scenes segments on the DVD.  In his commentary, Jeunet implies that Caro is too self-critical, dryly suggesting Caro thought the film a failure because a barely visible garden hose was unintentionally left in one shot.
  • Delicatessen was picked as the Best Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival.  At home in France it won four César’s, including Best First Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Editing.
  • The original trailer for the American release simply contained the entire “bed-spring symphony” scene, with the movie’s title appearing at the end.
  • At the time of release some reputable American critics reported that the film was either co-produced or “presented by”  Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits.  It seems likely the Monty Python alum, whose early films are tonally similar to Jeunet and Caro, played some part the American distribution.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Howard Vernon’s aquatic second floor apartment, covered in a few centimeters of algae-green water and inhabited by frogs and snails who climb over all the furniture, the record player, and even over the dozing actor.  In the corner is a giant pile of discarded escargot shells.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wandering through Delicatessen is like taking a tour of a

Spanish trailer for Delicatessen

dilapidated French boarding house filled with insane tenants, most pleasantly eccentric, some downright creepy.  You peer inside each room and find something unique and discomfiting.  The film is filled with bizarre characters and absurd comic interludes, set in a decaying near-future universe that is artificially “off.”

COMMENTS:  Except for Marie-Laure Dougnac’s eyes, there is no blue in Delicatessen, Continue reading 35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

32. PHANTASM (1979)

AKA The Never Dead (Australia)

“…when you’re dealing with a movie with this many oddball ideas, and a director who’s not afraid to ‘go weird’ just because he wants to, your best bet is probably just to keep quiet, enjoy the ride, and then see how you feel once the whole crazy experience is over with.”–Scott Weinberg, Fearnet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Angus Scrimm, , Bill Thornbury,

PLOT:  While secretly observing services for a deceased family friend, recently orphaned 13 year-old Mike witnesses an impossible feat performed by the funeral director known only as The Tall Man.  Later, while following the older brother he adores to a tryst in a cemetery, he spoils the romantic ambiance when he tries to warn his brother of a dwarf-like creature he sees scurrying in the shadows.  The Tall Man begins appearing in Mike’s nightmares, and he journeys alone to the isolated funeral home to gather evidence to support his belief that the mortician is responsible for the strange happenings in his New England town.

Still from Phantasm (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • The kernel of the idea for Phantasm came from a dream writer/director Coscarelli had in his late teens where he was “being pursued through a corridor by some kind of flying steel ball.”
  • Coscarelli, only 23 years old when Phantasm began production, not only wrote and directed the film but also served as cinematographer and editor.
  • The film originally received an “X” rating in the United States (a kiss of death at that time for anyone seeking wide theatrical distribution) due to the blood and violence in the silver sphere scene (and the shot of urine seeping out of the dead man’s pants leg).  The scene is frightening and effective, but relatively tame by twenty-first century standards.  According to a widely repeated anecdote, Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin, who liked the film, intervened with the MPAA to secure an “R” rating for Phantasm. Per co-producer Paul Pepperman, however, it was someone from the distribution company who convinced the ratings board to change their verdict.  Champlin’s role was actually to recommend Universal pick the picture up for distribution.
  • A scene where the Tall Man appears in Mike’s dream was selected as the 25th entry in Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The film cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to make, and eventually earned over $15 million.
  • Phantasm spawned four sequels, all directed by Coscarelli. None were as well received or fondly remembered as the original.  Coscarelli would eventually score an underground hit again with the bizarre horror/comedy Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Without a doubt, the unexplained appearance of the flying sphere zooming through the sublimely creepy marble halls of the mausoleum.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPhantasm appears to be a standard horror film at first blush, but as it heedlessly races along from one fright to another, it becomes increasingly obvious that the plot is not resolving, or at least not resolving in any sensible way.  It is also obvious that this scattershot plotting, which elevates atmosphere and psychological subtext  by frustrating the literal sense, is a deliberate choice to “go weird” and not a result of incompetence.


Original trailer for Phantasm

COMMENTS: Mike wakes up to discover the Tall Man looming over the head of his bed like Continue reading 32. PHANTASM (1979)

27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

“I think the movie is fun.  It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’  Who cares.  It’s a burning house that someone lives in—it’s funny.”–Director/writer Charlie Kaufman

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener

PLOT: Caden is a community theater director in Schenectady, New York, whose marriage and health are crumbling.  When things seem their lowest—his wife abandons him, and he believes that he’s dying—he inexplicably receives a MacArthur Genius grant.  He uses the money to create a meticulous recreation of New York City inside a warehouse, filled with actors playing characters from his own life, including one playing Caden the director himself.

Still from Synecdoche, New York

BACKGROUND:

  • Synecdoche is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who has been the screenwriter behind most of Hollywood’s big-budget weird films in the past decade.  His scripting credits include Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
  • Kaufman began the script for Synecdoche as a horror film to be directed by frequent collaborator Spike Jonze.  Over two years the script evolved into its current tragicomedy form, and, as Jonze was busy with other projects, it was agreed that Kaufman would direct, with Jonze co-producing.
  • Synecdoche, New York won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.

INDELIBLE IMAGESynecdoche is a movie that weirds us out more through the concepts and dramatic situations than through the visuals, but there is a lovely image of a tattooed rose that physically sheds a real dead petal as its owner expires.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Charlie Kaufman.  More to the point, Charlie Kaufman unleashed; unlike Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, where weird and puzzling events are given a rational (if obscure) answer by the end, the weirdness of Synecdoche deliberately frustrates all attempts at a logical solution.  Hazel’s house, which burns and smokes for decades without being consumed, is shamelessly absurd.  The movie is an exploration of dream logic, a life journey that fractures time, space and coherence, where individual events do not add up piece by piece on a plot level, but resolve themselves on an emotional level.

Original trailer for Synecdoche, New York

COMMENTS: “There is a secret something at play under the surface, growing like an Continue reading 27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige

FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material

PLOT:  A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor.  A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body.  She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.

Still from Begotten (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie.  According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
  • It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
  • Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991.  Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
  • After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films.  A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
  • After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD.  Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:

    There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film.  My experiments in BluRay have been promising.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack.  Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.

Original trailer for Begotten

COMMENTSBegotten is a difficult film to rate.  It does not set out to entertain, and it does not Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)