Tag Archives: Weirdest!

309. DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968)

La morte ha fatto l’uovo, AKA Plucked

“I think that’s a peculiar way to put it, men and chickens mixed up like that.”–Death Laid an Egg (dubbed version)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Gina Lollabrigida, Jean Sobieski 

PLOT: The movie opens with a prostitute killed in a hotel room. The action then moves to an experimental poultry farm, largely automated but overseen by Marco, his wife Anna, and their beautiful live-in secretary Gabri. The plot slowly reveals a love triangle, with multiple betrayals, with Marco’s growing disgust at the poultry business brought to a boil when he finds a scientist has bred a species of headless mutant chickens for sale to the public.

Still from Death Laid an Egg (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was almost certainly inspired by a line from Surrealist icon ‘s “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias“: “Death laid eggs in the wound/at five in the afternoon.” Late in the movie Marco will mutter to himself “At 5 o’clock… the machine… the egg… the work…” and several shots focus on a clock approaching the 5 PM mark.
  • The second of an unofficial trilogy of surrealist movies director Giulio Questi made in “disreputable” genres. For more on Questi’s odd career, see the last paragraph of the Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! review.
  • Death Laid an Egg was restored in 2016 by Nucleus Films from a newly discovered negative that contained a couple minutes of footage not seen in previous releases. The film was available on VHS in a dubbed version, but outside of suspect bargain versions from overseas, it was unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray until 2017.
  • Bruno Maderna, who wrote the atonal score, was an accomplished classical composer and conductor who died of cancer at the relatively young age of 53, a mere five years after Death Laid an Egg was completed.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The exotic Lollabrigida and the nubile Aulin are a tempting pair of birds, but they’re upstaged by the actual poultry in this one. The oddest sight of all is hens stuffed into file folders for alphabetization (?) in a chicken functionary’s office.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Playboy chickens; filed chickens; all-breast chickens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A juicy slice of breaded with a coating of and seasoned with a sprinkling of , Death Laid an Egg was the world’s first (and so far, only) deep-fried, chicken-centric Surrealist giallo.


Original Italian trailer for Death Laid an Egg

COMMENTS: Personal anecdote: the first time I watched Death Laid Continue reading 309. DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968)

302. WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“I hate the irrational. However, I believe that even the most flagrant irrationality must contain something of rational truth. There is nothing in this human world of ours that is not in some way right, however distorted it may be.”–William Reich

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Milena Dravic, Ivica Vidovic, Jackie Curtis

PLOT: After a disorienting “overture” hinting at themes to come, WR settles in as a documentary on the late work and life of William Reich, the controversial disciple of Sigmund Freud who came to believe in the therapeutic power of the orgasm and in a mystical energy called “orgone.” Gradually, other semi-documentary countercultue snippets intrude, including hippie Vietnam protesters, the confessions of a transsexual, and some fairly explicit erotic scenes (in one, a female sculptor casts a mold of a volunteer’s erect penis). Finally, a fictional narrative—the story of a sexually liberated Yugoslavian girl seducing a repressed Soviet dancer—begins to take precedence, leading to a suitably bizarre conclusion.

Still from WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Reich was a controversial figure in psychoanalysis; a highly respected disciple of Freud as a young man, his ideas grew more extreme and crankish as he aged. A reformed Marxist, he coined the phrase “sexual revolution” and devised an orgasm-based psychotherapy. His theorizing about “orgone energy” led to promotion of boxes called “orgone accumulators,” which he claimed could cure disease and control the weather. This device got him into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration, and he was eventually persecuted for fraud, then imprisoned for contempt after refusing to stop selling his books and devices. He died in prison.
  • The hippie performance artist is Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs (Fugs songs also appear on the soundtrack).
  • The film’s transvestite is Jackie Curtis, the Superstar mentioned in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Jackie was just speeding away…”
  • The segments with Josef Stalin come from the Soviet propaganda film The Vow (1946).
  • WR was banned in Yugoslavia until 1986. It was either banned (for obscenity West of the Iron Curtain, for politics to the East) or heavily cut in many other countries. The film ended Makavejev’s career as a director in Yugoslavia; all of his future features were produced in North America, Europe or Austraila.
  • WR was selected as one of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Yugoslavian sexpot doing her impression of the Brain that Wouldn’t Die, declaring “even now I’m not ashamed of my Communist past,” while her forensic pathologist stands above her holding the decapitation implement: an ice skate.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Penis molding; “Milena in the Pan”; hymn to a horse

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A straight-up documentary of the clinically insane psychiatrist William Reich would necessarily have been a little bizarre, but that’s just the starting point for this crazy-quilt counterculture collage that alternates between Reichian sexual theories, demonstrations of New York decadence, and esoteric Marxist dialectic.


Short clip from WR: Mysteries of the Organism

COMMENTS: Sex is dangerous. It even gets WR‘s heroine, Milena, Continue reading 302. WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971)

288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)

Weirdest!

“At this point I had realized that Damon’s film was like a Zen riddle. The more you tried to understand it with rational thought, the more it’s true meaning eluded you. I’d learned just to sit back and enjoy the experience.”–Thad Vassmer, “The Making of Reflections of Evil

DIRECTED BY: Damon Packard

FEATURING: Damon Packard, Nicole Vanderhoff

PLOT: Bob is a grossly overweight man trying to make a living peddling watches on the streets of present-day L.A. In flashback, we learn that his sister Julie died of an overdose in the 1970s. Julie’s spirit seeks out Bob with an important message from beyond the grave, which she eventually delivers to him at Universal Studios theme park.

Still from Reflections of Evil (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • Packard self-funded the film with an inheritance he received—one source estimated it at $500,000. He spent everything on the film and was broke immediately afterwards.
  • Packard sent out over 20,000 original DVDs he paid to have pressed for free, sending many to celebrities. He published some of their reactions on the movie’s now-defunct official website.
  • Reflections of Evil encountered serious distribution problems because of its unlicensed use of copyrighted material (such as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships”). Packard recut the film in 2004 to avoid these issues (we review a different cut here).
  • Per the end credits, Universal Studios “permanently banned” Packard (presumably due to his guerilla shooting on their property).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bob’s massive, angry face seems to fill about every third or fourth frame. You’d be safe picking any one of the many warped camera tricks Packard uses to make his own bloated visage appear even more grotesque.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Young Spielberg’s death set; the Golden Guru; Schindler’s List: The Ride

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hiding behind the generic title Reflections of Evil (presumably chosen because Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid was already taken) is one of the most personal and peculiar movies ever made: a  homemade mélange of bizarre editing, black helicopters, vintage 1970s commercials, angry L.A. street people, barking dogs, a barking watch salesman, a ghost in a see-through nightgown, and so much more. Repetitive, abrasive, grotesque, and intermittently brilliant, Reflections will shatter your mind, leaving you wondering whether you’ve just watched the magnum opus of a crude genius or a the manifesto of a genuine madman.


Trailer for Reflections of Evil

COMMENTS: Although there is a loose story to Reflections of Evil, if Continue reading 288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)

279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

“We have tried to create a kind of ‘nether world’ that would seem timeless. A strange place that would be uncomfortably familiar.”–Dave Borthwick

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dave Borthwick

FEATURING: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard

PLOT: When wasp-guts accidentally fall into a jar of artificial sperm, the resultant baby is a fetus-like boy about the size of a thumb. While Tom is still a pre-verbal toddler, men in black suits kidnap him from his poor but loving home and take him to their “Laboratorium” for study. Escaping with the help of a tiny dragon-like creature, Tom stumbles upon to other miniature people who live in a state of eternal war against the “giants,” before reuniting with his father.

Still from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie’s plot is suggested by the fairy tale “Tom Thumb,” the oldest surviving English folktale, but beyond the presence of a tiny child there are few similarities to the ancient legend.
  • The movie was originally commissioned by the BBC as a ten-minute short to be shown at Christmastime, but they rejected the end product for being too dark. The station changed its mind after the short became an award-winning hit on the festival circuit, and co-funded this one-hour feature version of the story.
  • Tom Thumb was also partly funded by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also wrote the theme song.
  • Besides stop-motion animation, Tom Thumb uses a technique called “pixilation,” which is basically the same idea but with live actors instead of models. Director Borthwick found that professional actors lacked the patience to sit still for the hours sometimes required for shots where humans interacted with puppets, so he used animators and technical personnel in the main roles instead (star Nick Upton is a primarily an animator specializing in pixilation).
  • After debuting on television, Tom Thumb toured the film festival circuit and even booked theatrical dates in the U.S., paired with the excellent and bizarre short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s so much to choose from—particularly the surrealistic menagerie of disembodied body parts and mix-and-match homunculi from the Laboratorium—that the wilder images cancel each other out. In fact, it’s the faces of our two leads—the innocent, half-formed clay features of Tom and the greasy, beaming mug of his proud working-class dad—that stick in the mind. Indeed, for the poster and DVD cover images, the producers used such of scene of the two principal characters posing together (it’s a promotional still of a domestic scene that does not actually occur in the movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying syringe insect; crucified Santa; halo of vermin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tone of this fairy tale is hard to explain: equal parts silent slapstick, dystopian futurism, and ian surrealism, delivered through twitchy visuals that makes it play like a particularly restless dream. There is an unexpected sweetness to the concoction that helps it go down more smoothly than you might expect, but it still leaves a residue of nightmare behind.


Original trailer for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

COMMENTS:The had been producing surreal, Continue reading 279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

278. I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE (1973)

J’irai Comme un Cheval Fou

“…where you go look for the grotesque, the dirty, you find God, happiness, beauty…”–Fernando Arrabal

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: George Shannon, Hachemi Marzouk, Emmanuelle Riva

PLOT: Accused of killing his mother and stealing her jewels, Aden Rey flees to the desert. There, he discovers a mystical dwarf shepherd named Marvel who offers him refuge. They develop a friendship verging on romance, and Aden decides to take the innocent nature boy (and his favorite goat) to see the big city.

Still from I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • Together with and , Fernando Arrabal founded the Panic movement (named after the Greek satyr god Pan). Starting in 1962 in Paris, the Panic movement staged disruptive live public “happenings” and plays that included (reportedly) live animal sacrifices, Jodorowsky being stripped and whipped, nude women covered in honey, and a replica of a giant vagina. The movement was inspired by the idea that Surrealism had become too mainstream and lost its power to shock the viewer; Jodorowsky officially dissolved it in 1973, after the three principals had already gone their own ways.
  • I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse was Arrabal’s second film as director (after 1971’s surreal fascism satire Viva la Muerte). He may be best known to 366 readers as the screenwriter for Jodorowsky‘s 1968 debut Fando y Lis, which he adapted from his own play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The most unforgettable image in I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse is one I actually wish I could forget: Aden and Marvel silhouetted in the sunset, squatting back to back, defecating. If you need something less repulsive (and we do, for illustrative purposes), go with the dwarf making out with a skull so fresh that bits of meat still cling to it.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Synchronized pooping; cross-dressing skull-birthing; butt-flower eating

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With its sharply dressed, on-the-lam hero wandering the streets of Paris as the cops close in, I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse plays at times like an exceptionally strange nouvelle vague crime flick—as if failed to show up on set and Alejandro Jodorowsky seized control of the project, firing and installing a dwarf as the love interest. Oedipal, mystical, scatological, blasphemous, surreal, and still shocking even today, Crazy Horse is crazy indeed.

DVD release trailer for I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse

COMMENTS: Fernando Arrabal’s sophomore feature I Will Walk Like Continue reading 278. I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE (1973)

274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

“Often when we go to the cinema we feel like we’re being taken for fools because things we have instantly understood are laboriously explained. Here it’s a little the other way round.”–Olivier Smolders

Weirdest!

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Olivier Smolders

FEATURING: Fabrice Rodriguez, Yves-Marie Gnahoua, Iris Debusschere

PLOT: A solitary entomologist works at a natural history museum in a world where it is only light for fifteen seconds a day. One day, he comes home to his empty apartment and discovers an African woman sleeping in his bed. She is ill and pregnant and eventually dies, leaving him to deal with the body.

Still from Nuit Noire (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • Olivier Smolders was born in the Congo, which explains the source of the film’s African imagery.
  • A prolific short film maker, Nuit Noire is Smolders’ only feature film to date.
  • The movie received a very limited theatrical release even in its native Belgium, and did not appear in U.S. theaters (outside of a few film festivals) at all. Little has been written about Nuite Noir in the English language (an only a little more in French).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The African woman’s dead body turning into a pupae, then splitting open as a new life emerges.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: 15 seconds of sun; elephant in the alley; African corpse cocooning

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world of eternal midnight, with troubled dreams of dead children and troubling realities of sick foreign women who mysteriously show up in your bed, Nuit Noire manipulates time and concepts in ways that only film can. One woman changes into another, and then into another. This story could not take place in the light of day.

Short clip from Nuit Noire

COMMENTS: Closeups of squirming bugs a la Blue Velvet. A reserved protagonist taking care of a sick charge in his isolated apartment a la Eraserhead. Billowing red curtains a la… every Continue reading 274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Sanatorium pod Klepsydra; AKA The Sandglass

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. “–Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: As the film opens, Józef is on a train headed to a sanatorium where his dead father is being kept. When he arrives, the grounds are deserted and decrepit, but eventually he finds a doctor who leads him to his now-sleeping father’s room and explains the patient’s comatose-but-alive status: “the trick is that we moved back time… we reactivate past time with all its possibilities.” Józef then wanders through the sanatorium’s grounds, meeting his mother, a collector of automatons, a parade of men dressed in bird costumes, the Three Wise Men, and other strange characters.

Still from The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was primarily based on Polish Surrealist author Bruno Schultz’s short-story collection “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,” although it included ideas from some of the author’s other short stories. (A Schulz story was also the inspiration for the ‘ stop-animation nightmare “The Street of Crocodiles“).
  • Wojciech Has worked on this project for five years.
  • The Hourglass Sanatorium did not receive the blessing of the Polish censors and was banned. Has had copies smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival, where it tied for the jury prize (at that time, essentially third place). In apparent retaliation for his insubordination, the Communist Party did not approve any of Has’ new film projects for the next ten years.
  • In Poland, an hourglass is a symbol of death.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, especially given how visually sumptuous The Hourglass Sanatorium is, the image which best evokes the movie isn’t even in it. I speak of the famous theatrical release poster by Polish artist Franciszek Starowieyski, which depicts a giant orange eyeball perched on a jawbone, with a grill of teeth through which a worm crawls (a limbless woman’s torso is also stuck between its molars), while numbers and arrows illustrate features of bone anatomy like occult footnotes. The poster seizes upon the film’s major theme of death; Starowieyski was also picking up on the repeated motif of eyeballs which occurs throughout the Sanatorium, from the train conductor’s blind stare to the cobweb-covered eyeball collection Józef finds under the bed. To illustrate the film, we ultimately chose the image of a toppled wax automaton with his eye-socket popped open to reveal the gears inside—but when I think of The Hourglass Sanatorium, I always think of that poster first.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crow frozen in flight; Józef spying on Józef; eyeballs under the bed

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Hourglass Sanatorium is a rare work of genuine Surrealism. Seldom has any film ever captured the free-falling feeling of being lost in a dream so well: the portentous but inexplicable visions; the tenuous, tantalizing connections between ideas; the smooth and continuous shifting of realities. Let a blind conductor be your guide inside a crumbling hospital whose rooms hold wonder after wonder.


Brief clip from The Hourglass Sanatorium (in Polish)

COMMENTS: Sanatorium pod Klepsydra opens on the silhouette of a Continue reading 271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”―Henry David Thoreau

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: David Blair

FEATURING: David Blair

PLOT: A “supernatural photographer” and beekeeper searching for evidence of the afterlife buys a hive of rare, disease-resistant Mesopotamian bees. Years later, his grandson Jacob, who works as a software engineer designing flight simulators for warplanes, inherits the insects. The hive gives him visions, then drones pierce his skin and insert a crystal—which allows him to see the bees’ version of television—to direct him in his destiny as a metaphysical assassin.

Still from Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wax took six years to complete and was partially funded with grants from German Public Television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and other private and state charitable endowments.
  • Jacob’s grandfather, James “Hive” Maker, is played by (in a non-speaking role).
  • First broadcast on German television in 1991, this shot-on-video feature never received a true theatrical release, although it was blown up to 16mm film for limited screenings in 1993.
  • The New York Times reported that Wax was be the first feature-length motion picture to be broadcast on the Internet.
  • A “hypermedia” version of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is available for free viewing at a site hosted by the University of Virginia. The movie is available to watch or download for free on Vimeo under a Creative Commons license.
  • Two years ago, Blair said that he was still working on a sequel, which has been in progress for at least seven years.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, in a movie with so many digital distortions and abstract psychedelic graphics, it’s the shots of Jacob in his white beekeeping suit that stick in the mind the most—because, absurdly, he almost never takes it off, whether trudging through the steaming desert or walking past banks of supercomputers at his job at a military facility. Even when cuddling with his wife in front of the TV, he only takes off his hat. The suit becomes both a symbol of Jacob’s insular insanity, and a low budget substitute for a spacesuit a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jacob ventures into cosmic realms far beyond ordinary human conception.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Semi-intelligent missiles; the dead on the Moon; the Planet of Television

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a “documentary” about a man who is sent to the Planet of the Dead via bee television in order to kill the reincarnation of his grandfather’s brother-in-law, thereby becoming Cain, before being reincarnated in paradise. I think. The story is utterly insane, although it makes complete sense to bees.

Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees [10:00/85:00] from David Blair on Vimeo.

The first ten minutes of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

COMMENTS: When I first watched Wax, or the Discovery of Television Continue reading 270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa

FEATURING: , , , , , Jimmy Carl Black, Frank Zappa

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.

Still from 200 Motels (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motelsone of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.
  • 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.


Original trailer for 200 Motels

COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry Continue reading 266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

LIST CANDIDATE: HUMAN HIGHWAY (1982)

Weirdest!

 

DIRECTED BY: Neil Young (as Bernard Shakey),

FEATURING: Neil Young, , Dean Stockwell, , , Sally Kirkland, Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo

PLOT: A formless counterculture comedy centered around a garage/coffee shop in Glowtown, an irradiated community located by a nuclear plant in the dystopian near future.

Still from Human Highway (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Did you know that, in the early 1980s, Neil Young farted around with filmmaking under the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey” and got Devo and a bunch of aging Hollywood acidheads (Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell) to run around in a goofy apocalyptic musical comedy? You gotta hand it to Young–he can’t act, he can’t direct, but he can make a weird movie.

COMMENTS: Just a hunch, but when Neil Young invited Dennis Hopper and pals out to the California desert to make a movie, there may have been drugs on the set. The cast is not afraid to go all out and look ridiculous, which might be due to being too high to care. Human Highway is a series of mostly improvised vignettes set in the Southwestern dystopia of “Glowtown,” centered around a gas station/diner, with side trips to the local nuclear power plant where Devo work as singing, glowing waste disposal engineers. There are several plot threads: imminent nuclear war, a harried Dean Stockwell trying to cut costs and raise prices to turn a profit, Young’s Lionel’s hopeless crush on a waitress, and an upcoming talent show. There’s also a flying saucer piloted by “oil-rich Indians” that shows up every now and then. All of these storylines get dropped when Lionel is conked on the head with a wrench and has a dream sequence consisting of about three Neil Young music videos strung together. He wakes up to the apocalypse, and a dance number.

If nothing else, the cast is interesting. Devo is featured prominently, and Booji Boy (a childlike band mascot/character played by Mark Mothersbaugh in a rubber mask and falsetto) gets some of the best bits. Hopper plays a couple of different roles besides the cook, but he isn’t memorable in any of them. Stockwell doesn’t have a lot of material to work with, and Tamblyn has even less, relegated to the role of Young’s sidekick. With fake buck teeth and oversized glasses, Young is OK, I guess, as the dopey hick mechanic—but why give himself the toughest comic role, rather than handing it off to one of his buddies who knew how to act? After Neil jokes that he should have died of radiation poisoning because he worked on radiators all his life, we start to get the feeling that the comedy might be intentionally lame, just like the backgrounds he and Tamblyn pedal past on their bicycles are intentionally fake. It’s like a parody of a movie (which is different than a parody movie).

Despite the fact that the flick, which was a goofy lark up to that point, grinds to a halt when Lionel has his rock star dream sequence, more songs would have been nice—if they had been scattered more evenly throughout the film. The musical highlights include Devo doing the folk standard “It Takes a Worried Man (To Sing a Worried Song)” (twice), and a novel New Wave-y collaboration with the band on Young’s “Hey Hey My My” (with Booji Boy squeaking the lyrics while Neil delivers an acidic guitar solo). And who can forget the closer, a surreal post-apocalyptic Casio deconstruction of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (recast as “Breakin’ in the Wind,” with Booji reciting lyrics like “and how many sweating hands will pull pulsing pickles, bright and orange, spewing liquid vile and green”)? Pitched as an anarchic musical rather than an improvised indulgence, Human Highway may have had a shot at being a successful cult film, instead of a legendary oddity sought out by fans of the featured performers.

Human Highway was made in 1982, and for some reason filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio—did they have a TV audience in mind? (It was made at the dawn of MTV and the USA Network’s edgy “Night Flight,” where it would have been a perfect fit). In any event, Highway was barely screened during its initial theatrical run, but found a small audience on VHS. In 2016 it had a limited run re-release in Young’s “director’s cut” edition, which trimmed 8 minutes off the running time. A budget DVD, in a cardboard sleeve, followed later in the year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never released until it came to home video in 1996, which is surprising: while it’s certainly way too weird to have played to mainstream audiences, it should certainly have done well on the midnight circuit that still existed when it was made.”–TV Guide

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